Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Foxes in the Henhouse: Where Obama Missed the Turn

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 9/16/08

At the very beginning of this longest-in-history Presidential campaign there was a small but critical debate going on although few paid attention outside of the Old Dominion. The question was, could a Democratic candidate be elected to office in this country without carrying the South and the red states? The answer presented by Democratic strategists Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders was no.

In a book titled, Foxes in the Henhouse; How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ‘em Out, the authors argued that demographics since post-war demand that the South be included in the national dialog. The Democrats have been in denial of the rising influence of the red states, they pointed out. Indeed, the northeast Democrats saw themselves in opposition to the red states. They saw the red states and the South in particular as a recalcitrant historical backwater which would soon yield to Wall St. influence and incursion by out-of-town young urban professionals.

Ignoring the culture and people of the South was inherently immoral and imperial, agued Jarding. It could well destroy the Democratic Party.

There was a second book by Tom Shaller titled, Whistling Past Dixie. It was exactly Sheller’s point that the South should be ignored.

Spending valuable resources in Southern states is a dangerously self-destructive strategy that could serve to relegate Democrats to minority-party status for a generation, it states on the book’s website.

The South could be simply deeded over to the Republicans, writes Shaller. There were enough Democrats outside the region to win in national elections.

As one might expect, of these authors Shaller was the darling of NPR, PBS, and his work appeared regularly throughout the liberal press. So it should come as no surprise that Shaller’s thesis was the one adopted by the northeast strategists of the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

In 2008 it was actually possible to win with this strategy but only if the Republicans put forth the most egregious candidates possible and yielded to their narrowest orthodoxy. And as of July this year, when Obama was dropping three-pointers with ease on the basketball court in Iraq, it appeared that the Republicans were going to do just that.

Obama seemed to have it all by summer. Even thoughtful and moderate Republicans like South Carolina’s Governor Mark Sanford seemed charmed.

I don’t think many Democratic strategists actually read the Jarding/Saunders book although the authors had successfully helped bring former Virginia Governor Mark Warner and Virginia Senator Jim Webb to the national scene. The party people I spoke to who did were all either Virginians or Texans.

And Obama’s ignorant and patronizing comment about 102 million rural people defaulting to “. . . God and guns. . . “ in weak economic times suggested that he had no clue about the South and little desire to learn.

But the McCain people did appear to be listening in on Jarding and Saunders.

A Joe Lieberman or Mitt Romney would have had both parties whistling past Dixie. The South would have had no options, and the playing field between the parties would have found a staid and tedious equilibrium. But if Obama had chosen Jim Webb, the Virginian with Scotch-Irish roots in rural Virginia, or Kathleen Sebelius, Governor of Kansas and one of the most accomplished governors in the country, he would have approached the needs of the heartland. But the choice of Joe Biden, the consummate striver of the Eastern Establishment, was the fatal mistake.

In one masterful hand, McCain responded by calling up Sarah Palin, the personification of heartland values. He awakened the South and the red states. He has been rising ever since.

The Obama campaign might not end in victory. But it is a well-run campaign run by a brilliant and gifted Senator even if it is based on a flawed paradigm which may damn its possibility of success. Even so, it could serve as a bridge to Jim Webb or Mark Warner and Kathleen Sebelius in the Presidential race of 2012 and begin a restructuring of the Democratic Party along more suitable lines.

This would in fact follow in the tradition of the mid-1800s when northeast liberals recognized that they must leave the ivory tower behind and look west and enter the real world of the new frontier if they wanted to participate in the future of America. As Benjamin Franklin advised early on, the future was in the west. Recognizing the needs of the heartland as Jarding and Saunders prescribe could again restore the Democratic party today.

There is a third book that needs to enter into this discussion, H.W. Brands’ masterful historical study, Andrew Jackson, His Life and Times. It is important for northern strategists to begin to understand the life force of the heartland and the South in particular. Jackson was, like Jim Webb, born fighting. From childhood on, Jackson fought Indians and English on his way from the North Carolina Piedmont to New Orleans, and he fought the Eastern Establishment with the same ferocity on his way to the White House.

The lesson then is appropriate again at the beginning of our new century: The South and the heartland will not be passed by, not now, not ever.