TOPICS > Politics

Race, Class and Politics

November 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: We pick up the story now with two New York Times reporters: Political writer Katharine Seelye; and Jodi Wilgoren, who has been covering the Dean campaign. Welcome both of you. Jody, we just saw this again last night. Howard Dean so emphatic in not giving any ground to Sharpton or Edwards. Why this turnaround today?

JODI WILGOREN: I think Howard Dean woke up this morning and his aides woke up this morning and saw that he had exacerbated the problem with his defiance last night. And I think they felt that no matter what they did today, the story was going to live another day.

And they thought the only way to control it was to get at the center of it and change course a little bit and admit that he had mishandled it, that he had been clumsy, as you heard him say, and state clearly what he finally got around to during the debate which was that he said he does not condone the flag.

MARGARET WARNER: Do he and his aides consider that what he did today was an apology?

JODI WILGOREN: It’s interesting. He didn’t use the words apology or say I’m sorry. As you heard, he said I deeply regret the pain I may have caused. Myself and some other reporters asked his campaign manager directly afterwards why didn’t he apologize?

And his campaign manager said he wanted to let the governor’s statement stand as it was. So he sort of neither said that he didn’t apologize or that he did. Senator Kerry’s campaign is making a little bit of hay out of that. I’m not sure what that’s about. I mean it may have been purposeful not to use that word, you know, he said he deeply regretted the pain he may have caused. That’s what he said.

MARGARET WARNER: This isn’t a new line of his, right, though about the flag, about the need to reach out to white voters who may ride around in a pickup truck with a confederate decal or words to that effect?

JODI WILGOREN: Right. What happened was back in February of this year at the Democratic National Committee meeting he made a speech in which he referenced… that he wanted to make an economic argument to appeal to poor whites in the South, some of whom may have confederate flags in their pickup trucks and to campaign for their votes on an economic basis, whereas he said that the Republicans have won their votes by appealing to race.

He wanted to instead say they should be voting Democratic because their kids don’t have health insurance either, in his words. He then said it again in March on an Iowa television program and then this past weekend what happened was he was talking with a reporter for the Des Moines Register who referenced that Iowa press television show from March and asked him the question about it.

Then that was when he said this sort of truncated version of the comment which was, “I still want to be the candidate of white southerners with confederate decals on their pickup trucks.” So he said it in a slightly different way, in a shorter way and the other thing that has changed, of course, is that he’s getting a lot more attention now that he’s running towards the front of the pack than he did back in February and March when he was, as they like to say, an asterisk in the polls.

MARGARET WARNER: Kit Seelye, he was, of course, trying to put this larger issue on the table which is the Democrats need to come to grips with why they don’t do better with white southern voters. How badly do they do?

KATHARINE SEELYE: That’s exactly right, Margaret. Whatever his words were, he has put his finger on a very deep problem for the Democratic Party. That is, they just don’t have very much support in the South. The most recent exit polls from 2002 show that only one in four southerners identifies himself or herself as a Democrat. That shows you right there that there’s a serious problem here.

MARGARET WARNER: And so when Dean says he’s talking about poor whites, it’s really a lot broader than that, the disaffection.

KATHARINE SEELYE: It’s much broader than that. In fact it was really conservatives and — conservatives who started leaving the Democratic Party some decades ago. Moderates have been leaving it. Most of them view the Democratic Party at this point as being the party of liberal elites and minorities.

MARGARET WARNER: When you look at the exit poll numbers and when you talk to people who really study the South and southern political culture, what are the issues on which the Democrats really have problems beyond the cultural elitism?

KATHARINE SEELYE: They’re really sort of values and interests. Those extend from religion to gun control, a very serious, serious culturally divisive issue; taxes. They view the Democratic Party as the party of big spending, big taxes, tax increases. Abortion obviously is an issue. And interestingly, Bill Clinton, a southerner, a Democrat, was able to get around this by a few choice signals that he sent to members of the Democratic Party in the South. And one was, “we will not… I’m going to change welfare as we know it.” So it’s a lot of those economic issues tied in with the cultural issues.

MARGARET WARNER: And then how much of it though would you say still is race? I noticed in the campaign in which Haley Barbour won the governorship of Mississippi, a Republican, last night, he raised the confederate flag issue against the Democratic governor over putting up for referendum whether to change the flag — the Mississippi state flag. To what degree is race still either a subtext or an overt issue in these campaigns?

KATHARINE SEELYE: Well, I think it’s still predominant — I think people are very much aware of it. You still have these very — these state parties are really largely black. They are not –

MARGARET WARNER: The Democratic Party.

KATHARINE SEELYE: The Democratic Party, correct. There’s not much division within the Democratic… within the minority groups about which party to join. So I think that tells you right there is still — it’s an overriding problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Jody, Dean has tried — has tried to talk about issues other than just the economic. For instance, on guns he’s tried to expand his appeal.

JODI WILGOREN: That’s right. Actually that’s how this most recent comment about the confederate flag came out was in a debate over guns. Dr. Dean has been endorsed by the NRA during his career in Vermont as governor. Although he supports now –


JODI WILGOREN: — although he supports the federal assault weapons ban and background checks he says the rest of gun control should be left to the states. That’s one of the ways he appeals to rural voters, hunters and folks who believe in having guns for their own defense.

MARGARET WARNER: And Kit, do you see evidence that other Democratic candidates are trying to appeal to these… I think one of the phrase s is the NSACAR dads as opposed to the soccer moms.

KATHARINE SEELYE: Exactly. I think they all are. I think they’re all very conscious of this. I just wanted to say something on another point and that is in terms of signals that Dr. Dean was sending. When he said in response to Al Sharpton, you know I’m not a bigot, I signed the civil unions bill, that was almost was as much of a signal to these same people he is supposedly trying to appeal to that he does have different values from theirs.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean on gay rights.

KATHARINE SEELYE: The gay rights issue is another huge cultural divide.

MARGARET WARNER: Kit Seelye and Jodi Wilgoren, thank you both.