Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2002/ 15 Teves, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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A Southern strategy for the Democrats | The Dumb Guys of the Timid Party forgot, as they often do, just who they're dealing with. The Democrats, and the blacks who make up the most reliable Democratic constituency, are neither dumb nor timid.

Trent Lott is Dumb Guy No. 1, resurrecting all the tired clichés and raggedy stereotypes about the South. Mr. Lott said an exceedingly foolish and thoughtless thing (perhaps because he was rattled by the roguish pass that Strom Thurmond had just made at his wife). But whoever was giving foolish advice to President Bush is Dumb Guy No. 2. The president stood by Mr. Lott for three days, offering only a mild rebuke, and it was not until The Washington Post and the New York Times held out their hoops, demanding that Mr. Lott be sacked, that the president leaped. (Who says white men can't jump?) A dying inside-the-Beltway story exploded.

Soon every pol with a megaphone was on a street corner declaring that he had a purer heart, a sounder mind and a cleaner conscience than anyone else. "I don't have a racist bone in my body" became the cliché of the day, and this was particularly believable of the Republican pols who sometimes reveal themselves as spineless if not missing other crucial bones.

Bill Frist's availability pleases the White House and it means that nearly everybody now agrees that Trent Lott must go, like a deposed Latin American generalissimo dispatched to congenial exile. Only this time not even Miami wants him. The Republican dumb guys think dispatching Mr. Lott to Miami will mollify the blacks, quiet the Democrats and maybe even shut up some of their own who haven't indulged such self-inflicted abuse in years.

But the red-hots, such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, understand that they would be exceedingly foolish to switch to the Republicans, as earnest and sincere as everyone in the "party of Lincoln" no doubt is. Why switch when the Republicans will from now on be hip-hopping to Democratic music, anyway? Black Democrats can remain good Democrats, eating their cake and having it, too. The administration has already caved on school vouchers; can anyone doubt that affirmative action will soon be the signature dish at the White House mess? How willing now will George W. be to send conservative judges for consideration by senators for whom "reaching out" will become a 24/7 obligation?

The sordid Democratic appeal to blacks is based on the assumption, carefully cultivated, that blacks are oppressed, systematically deprived of opportunity and forever doomed to be the victims of life as it must be lived in a dirty rotten society. A growing number of blacks recognize this as malignant nonsense, that it celebrates and perpetuates the pain of the bigotries and injustices of the past, and thus has nothing to offer those who are eager to seize the opportunities, suddenly at hand, that were denied to them in the bad old days.

A certain kind of politician takes pleasure in parading his piety and indulging in unctuous self-righteousness, and Republicans seem particularly susceptible to this temptation. Nothing makes these worthies feel better or braver than boxing with ghosts. Trent Lott, everybody's friend only a fortnight ago, makes a particularly tempting target because he's not only a Southerner, but a Mississippian.

The South is suddenly such a stench in the nostrils of the "party of Lincoln" that if the Gooey Old Party is actually sincere in wanting to reach out and touch someone black, it should not only jettison the Southern strategy but perhaps jettison the South as well, and rebuild its fortunes in the Midwest and New England, where it first flourished. (Good luck.)

The South could be left to drift back to its natural home in the Democratic Party, eventually moderating the liberal goofiness that only a month ago threatened to reduce the party to irrelevance. (It was in all the papers.)

In fact, this may be happening. Mark Pryor reclaimed a Senate seat in Arkansas by running on "conservative values," showing himself in his television commercials decked out in camouflage hunting togs, reading the Bible to his children, promising undying devotion to "Putting Arkansas First." (Code words, anyone?) A month later, two dozen of Mr. Pryor's operatives were dispatched to neighboring Louisiana to rescue Mary Landrieu, showing her how to win by "Putting Louisiana First." Democrats may have stumbled on a winning Southern strategy of their own.

Nobody deals in racial politics in the South any longer; if he did, he would earn only the scorn of nearly all white voters. Race-baiting is a game now for the hustlers in Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago and points north. Mississippi, in fact, elects more blacks to public office than any other state. Most of these are sheriffs, mayors, aldermen, tax assessors, judges and road supervisors who are the closest to the residents of the rural counties and small towns where old hatreds die hardest.

Pandering always looks easy, but it never works. Americans, black and white, resent groveling with an abiding ferocity. It's what makes us Americans.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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