Democrats and the South

The term "solid South" used to refer to the stranglehold the Democratic Party held on the region since the Civil War. The last 40 years have upended that tradition: The region has shifted from solidly Democratic to mostly Republican.

That's bad news for Democrats, who after last Tuesday's state and local elections retain control of only four ex-Confederate governorships. This Saturday Louisiana voters could shrink that to three.

Add that to the GOP's increasing domination of the region's electoral votes and congressional delegation, and its creeping takeover of state legislators, and the picture is one of a Democratic Party in serious trouble in a region it used to control handily. In national elections, Democrats are increasingly retreating to bastions in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

That's the issue Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean tried to raise recently with his clumsy remark about voters with "Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." But like most national Democrats, he's mistaken about the cause of the Democrats' Southern woes.

The myth among liberal Democrats in the North is that their party's setbacks in the South result from an insidious "Southern strategy" the GOP undertook in the Nixon years to woo white voters using racial code words. Enough of that happened to give the theory credence, but that's not the Democrats' real problem today.

White Southerners have abandoned the national Democrats in droves since 1964 because the party has drifted increasingly leftward and embraced a range of positions - on gun control, crime, church-state relations, abortion, defense, affirmative action, labor, just to name a few - that play poorly among Southern whites. Since 1960, only when Democrats nominated Southerners - Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton - have they captured the White House. (Al Gore, another Southerner, came historically close.)

Governor Dean at least recognizes the problem, but may be the wrong candidate to correct it. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas play well in their native region. But few of the other presidential candidates display much understanding of the challenge.

For years Southern Democrats have tried to explain to the party the need to tone down the liberal rhetoric that plays well in Boston - and in the early primaries - but drives 'em batty in Birmingham. Will this year's Democratic pack get the message?

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