Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2003 / 14 Kislev, 5764
Dean heads South
Dean announced this week on Fox News Sunday that if during this presidential campaign Democrats would stick to issues like "jobs, health care and education" and not get trapped into talking about things like "guns, God, gays, abortion, and all this controversial stuff that we're not going to come to an agreement on," then the party would have a better chance of winning votes in the South.
(In his prepared remarks on this subject, Dean made more sense, but then Dean usually makes more sense in his prepared remarks.)
There is nothing new about Dean's dream. It was more than two years ago that I wrote about the Democrats Southern strategy, which I called a "high-risk attempt to attract rural voters."
"We are aggressively putting together a rural strategy," Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe told me back in June, 2001. "Democrats are aggressively going after parts of this country that traditionally have been difficult for us."
Al Gore had won the popular vote the previous year with large margins in urban areas and came within 2 percentage points of George W. Bush in the suburbs. Bush easily carried rural America, however.
And some strategists identified a "cultural gap" between liberal, urban, Democratic America and rural, small-town Republican America. "The party that emerges victorious will figure out some way to bridge that chasm," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.
The trick, he said, was for each party to address its current weaknesses without sacrificing its strengths. In other words, the Democrats had to reach out to rural voters, he said, "without risking their strength with suburban soccer moms."
That, however, is some trick.
And candidates who now advocate a headlong rush to get "NASCAR" or "Bubba" or rural voters forget that only 28 percent of the votes cast in the last election came from rural areas, while 29 percent came from urban areas and 43 percent came from the suburbs.
In the suburbs and cities a lot of Democratic voters want to hear about protecting abortion rights and gay rights and strengthening gun control. They don't want their presidential candidates to run away from these issues; they want their candidates to stand up and fight for these issues. (And I suspect at least some rural voters feel the same way.)
One of the most significant divides between urban and rural America does come over guns, which many rural Americans tend to view as instruments of recreation and many urbanites tend to view as ,instruments of destruction.
And guns made a big difference in 2000, especially in some key states that Al Gore lost like Tennessee and Arkansas. According to exit polls, some 48 percent of voters owned guns in 2000, up from 37 percent in 1996. (This did not necessarily mean that more people owned guns; it could mean rather that more gun owners went to the polls.)
Among those owning guns, 61 percent went for Bush. Among those not owning guns, 58 percent went for Gore. More significant, however, is what gun ownership did to other voting patterns: Overall, union households gave Gore 59 percent of their votes. But if there was a gun in that household, the vote was split 50-50 between Bush and Gore.
But the problem for the Democrats was not really one of guns, but of trust. When Bill Clinton advocated strong federal gun control laws, but told hunters he did not want to take their guns away, they believed him. When Al Gore said the same thing, they did not.
Terry McAuliffe's solution was to get Democrats to stop talking about guns altogether, at least at a national level. "I believe we ought to move it out, let the individual communities decide their gun laws," he said.
Howard Dean believes in the same approach. He wants to duck the gun issue entirely. He wants to let the states decide their own gun controls laws. And, on Fox News, he applied this state's rights theory to "all this controversial social stuff," too.
It is an old dodge. If a presidential candidate wants to avoid dealing with a tough issue, he just says, "Let the states handle it." That way he doesn't have to take a position and risk offending anyone.
This was not the way Clinton approached tough problems, however. Clinton wanted to solve them. And one of his proudest political legacies was converting gun control from a from a left-wing to a mainstream issue.
Clinton did so by focussing on widely unpopular items like "cop-killer" bullets and assault weapons and stressing that Americans needed neither for sport or protection. The issue resonated especially well with women, who rewarded Clinton in 1992 and 1996 with their votes.
Clinton could have said, "Let the states handle it." But that wouldn't have solved the problem.
You can't win over every voter on every issue. Sometimes you have to take a stand simply because it is the right thing to do. Sometimes you have to take a stand on a divisive issue in the hope that by doing the right thing, you will eventually unite people.
Howard Dean made his early reputation in this campaign by standing up and speaking out and fighting, not by ducking and weaving. He ought to remember that.
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