Showing our primary colors

There's a joke about a retiring sea captain who tells his successor, "There's one critical bit of information that's really the secret to running the ship. It's on a slip of paper in the upper right hand drawer of your new desk." The new captain opens the drawer and finds the slip. On it he reads, "Port is left. Starboard is right."

Through this election season I've been clinging to a similarly critical bit of information: "Red states go Republican. Blue states go Democratic."

I think I'm not the only one. Newbies on the political circuit have been talking "red" and "blue" as if the colors had been assigned after a coin toss between Jefferson and Adams. But this is really only the second presidential cycle in which the phrases "red states" and "blue states" have crystallized into an accepted shorthand. Time was when one could flip the dial, as we used to say, on election night and see different color schemes on different network maps. In 1992, the networks settled on red for Bill Clinton and blue for George H. W. Bush. By 2000 they had - dare I say it - flip-flopped, and the victories of the scion of the House of Bush were colored red.

Not everyone finds the new standard color coding intuitive. One has to resort to little mnemonics: Republicans go for red meat and Democrats go for blue cheese? Hmm. The putdown lines for privileged liberals have generally referred to brie, not blue. But at least they both start with "B."

Maybe the simplest thing is to etch in thought, "R = red = Republicans," and let the Democrats have the one that's left over.

Part of the problem here is that red, as a political color, is seriously oversubscribed. It's the royal red of George III's Redcoats during the American Revolution and of Royal Mail postboxes in Britain today. But it also is - was? - the color of the Communist Party and the left generally. The slogan "Better dead than red" was not a comment on the House of Windsor. On the other hand, royal red isn't the color that comes to mind to associate with the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

Blue is also subject to competing claims. If Democrats are blue, it might be by association with the blue-collar shirts of union members, traditionally a strong constituency of the party. But blue is also the color of the trust-me suits of the business class, expected to vote Bush-Cheney this fall.

Blue is traditionally a liberal color. The colors of the Liberal International - the international federation of liberal (i.e., centrist, free-market, nonsectarian) parties - are medium blue and yellow. National flag colors tend to trump ideological hues, though, as I discovered during the Canadian federal elections of 2000, when my Toronto neighborhood erupted in lawn signs promoting the local Liberal candidates - in Maple Leaf red, not liberal blue.

Their counterparts in Germany, aka the Free Democrats, cheerfully use the blue and yellow team colors rather than national flag colors. This lets German headline writers occasionally use the term "Ampelkoalition" ("traffic-light coalition") to refer to governments made up of Social Democrats (red), Liberals (yellow), and Greens.

But no serious party in the United States would claim any colors other than red, white, and blue. I do seem to recall, however, that the Democrats, at their 1972 convention in Miami, opted for some subtle variations on these hues for the traditional bunting in the hall - heading in the direction of salmon, cream, and teal, to look better on TV, reportedly. It all must have made for a good laugh at GOP headquarters.

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