Friday, February 25, 2005

Answering Armando Again

This is getting to be really interesting. Armando of DailyKos has done a second post responding to my latest optimistic epistle on the future of Southern Democrats, and poses a few more questions and challenges that I'm happy to try to answer. Maybe I should apply for a Sympathy for the Devil diary on the Kos site, as a combined party unity/missionary effort.

The main question Armando poses is why, exactly, Dems cratered between '96 and '04 among Southern self-identified moderates. He answers his own question by suggesting that 9/11 made all the difference, elevating the national security issue.

Certainly that answer has something to do with it. Maybe it's all those military bases; maybe it's the disproportionate number of black, white and brown southerners who sign up to fight for their country; maybe it's even that fightin' frontier Jacksonian Scotch-Irish heritage that Walter Russell Mead writes about--but there's no question national security matters more in the South than in, say, Iowa.

But the problem with attributing the Dem decline between '96 and '04 to national security is the intervening election: '00, when the Democratic presidential vote among white southerners collapsed, even though the candidate was, technically, a Southern White Guy (and, technically, a Baptist to boot) named Al Gore.

In another section of his post, Armando suggests that Clinton's personal qualities as a candidate, not his message or his positioning on issues, explains his relative success in the South. As I have argued at some length elsewhere, I don't think you can separate the message and the messenger so cleanly, especially in the South, where Clinton's communications gifts were considered natural, not supernatural.

Personalities aside, the biggest difference between Clinton '96 and Gore '00 had to do with how each candidate dealt with two sets of issues: culture, and role-of-government--both big "trust" issues in the South. Clinton was thoroughly progressive, but went well out of his way to make it clear that he wanted abortion to be "safe, legal and rare," that he supported a modest gay rights agenda because everyone who "worked hard and played by the rules" should be treated the same; and that he fought to maintain and even expand the social safety net on condition that it truly represented a "hand up, not a handout." Everyone in Washington laughed at Clinton's "micro-initiatives" on supporting the family--V-chips, school uniforms, youth curfews, etc,--but they sent big messages in the culturally-sensitive South. And in general, Clinton's whole '96 message was that he was willing to reign in government's excesses, while fighting to defend its essentials--the famous M2E2 (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment).

Compare that message to Gore's, and you go a long way towards understanding why the guy lost nearly half of Clinton's southern white support. Gore was forever bellowing about partial-birth abortion legislation (supported by about three-fourths of southerners) representing a dire threat to the basic right to choose. While Clinton called for "mending, not ending" affirmative action, Gore pledged to defend every aspect of affirmative action with his life. Clinton talked about balancing gun ownership rights with responsibilities. Gore talked about national licensing of gun owners. Clinton talked about making government "smarter, not bigger." Gore never mentioned his own role in the "reinventing government" initiative, and boasted an enormous policy agenda that added up to a message that he wanted to expand government as an end in itself.

Moving forward four years, Kerry tried to avoid Gore's mistakes on specific cultural and role-of-government issues, but never talked about these themes more than occasionally, and never came across with any kind of authenticity in his efforts to project himself as a man of faith, a hunter, a government-reformer, or a family guy. While Gore got killed by his positioning and the lack of a compelling message, Kerry got killed by the lack of a compelling message and by those personal characteristics--distorted and exaggerated by GOP propaganda--that made him seem alien to southern voters. And without any question, the polarization of the entire election pushed southern moderates, like moderates elsewhere, to pick sides instinctively rather than think it all through.

(At the risk of gnawing this question to death, I might add that Clinton in '96 was advancing an increasingly successful national policy agenda; Gore in '00 perversely ran a campaign that avoided references to that success; and Kerry, of course, had to campaign as a critic, not as an achiever).

The downward trajectory of the southern Dem vote between '96 and '04 also reflected demographic trends which I discussed in my earlier answer to Armando--trends that may not help Republicans that much in the immediate future, as the aging pains of new suburbs and bad GOP governance create a natural backlash that Democrats can exploit if they are smart enough.

Armando seizes on my commentary about southern suburban moderates as a Dem target to suggest that maybe the belief that "values voters" are the key to the South is wrong.

Well, that depends on your definition of "values voters." If it means people who want to criminalize abortions, demonize gays and lesbians, or institutionalize evangelical Christianity, then no, suburban southerners don't generally fit that category, and I'd personally write them off as targets even if that were the case, on both practical and moral grounds.

My own (and generally, the DLC's) definition of "values voters" is quite different. They are people who: (a) don't must trust politicians, and want to know they care about something larger than themselves, their party, and the interest groups that support them; (b) don't much trust government, and instinctively gravitate towards candidates who seem to care about the role that civic and religious institutions can play in public life; (c) don't much trust elites, whom they suspect do not and cannot commit themselves to any particular set of moral absolutes; (d) don't much like the general direction of contemporary culture (even if they are attracted to it as consumers), and want to know public officials treat that concern with respect and a limited agenda to do something about it; (e) are exquisitely sensitive about respect for particular values like patriotism, parenting and work; and (f) have a communitarian bent when it comes to cultural issues, and dislike those who view them strictly through the prism of the irresistable march towards absolute and universal individual rights without regard to social implications.

By that definition, I think southern suburban moderates, and especially women in that demographic, are definitely "values voters." In answer to Armando's particular question about how suburban southerners would react to that wingnut in Kansas who wants to explore the sexual histories of women seeking abortions, I think the simple answer is that they would say: "Mind your own business, boy! Aren't there some criminals out there you ought to be chasing?"

Somebody at Vanderbilt once wrote a book entitled "The South's Compulsive Need to Explain." In that spirit, I hope the debate over the region and its political future continues. Clearly, Earle and Merle Black need some real competition.
-- Posted at 9:42 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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