November 05, 2003,
You could see it in the faces of the Democratic candidates gathered in Boston Tuesday night for the CNN-Rock the Vote debate. For months, former Vermont governor Howard Dean has been running strong, and for months he has effectively parried their attempts to hit him on the Iraq war and on Medicare and on a bunch of other issues. But now, just for a moment, at the beginning of the debate, he appeared truly vulnerable. Time to pounce.
The subject was Dean's statement that he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." It came up at virtually the beginning of the debate when a questioner in the audience said, "When I read that comment, I was extremely offended. Could you explain to me how you plan on being sensitive to needs and issues regarding slavery and African-Americans, after making a comment of that nature?"
It was the perfect time for Dean to apologize, to say that he had made a poor choice of words, to say that his remarks were taken out of context.
But Dean doesn't do that. Instead, he plowed in.
"Sure," Dean said, explaining that "we need to talk to white southern workers about how they vote, because when white people and black people and brown people vote together in this country, that's the only time that we make social progress, and they need to come back to the Democratic party."
That was when the attacking started.
"I think that doesn't answer, Governor, this young man's question," said Al Sharpton. "Martin Luther King said, 'Come to the table of brotherhood.' You can't bring a Confederate flag to the table of brotherhood."
"I don't think you're a bigot," Sharpton told Dean, but "I think you ought to apologize."
No way, said Dean. "We're not going to win in this country, and even worse, Democrats, if we don't have a big tent," he said. "And I'm going to tell you right now, Reverend, you're right. I am not a bigot. And Jesse Jackson Jr. endorsed me and has stood up for what I said."
"That sounds more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson," Sharpton hit back. The crowd loved it.
Up until that point, the argument had been between Dean and Sharpton. Things took a further downward turn for Dean when North Carolina Sen. John Edwards jumped in.
"Unless I missed something, Governor Dean still has not said he was wrong," Edwards said. "Were you wrong, Howard?"
The crowd applauded.
"Were you wrong to say that?" Edwards repeated.
"No, I wasn't, John Edwards," an increasingly edgy Dean responded. You can tell when Dean is become really mad by the way he repeats his challenger's name the way he did a few weeks when he told Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt that he had done more to deliver health care than Gephardt ever had.
But Dean clearly realized it was time to try to steer the debate in a different direction. First, he tried to blame the entire situation on Republicans who "have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their Southern race strategy."
Then Dean tried to turn the talk to gay rights. "I am tired of being divided by race in this country," he said. "I am tired of being divided by abortion, by gay rights."
But he wasn't getting out of it so easily. "Let me tell you, the last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do," Edwards said to Dean. "I grew up in the South. I grew up with the very people that you're talking about. And what Al Sharpton just said is exactly right. The people that I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they don't drive around with Confederate flags on pickup trucks."
Even Carol Moseley Braun took a few shots. She was more polite, as usual, but the situation had the possibility of running out of control when moderator Anderson Cooper turned the podium back to Dean, who again tried to change the subject.
"I'm not going to take a back seat to anybody in terms of fighting bigotry," he said. "I signed I am the only person here that ever signed a bill that outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians."
The crowd began to applaud, signaling the Dean's ordeal was over. The gay strategy worked. "I understand that the Confederate flag is a loathsome symbol, just as I understood that all the anti-gay slurs that I had to put up with in Vermont after I signed that bill were loathsome symbols," Dean continued. "If we don't reach out to every single American, we can't win. I have had enough of campaigns based on fear. I want a campaign based on hope."
Most of all, of course, he wanted a campaign in which everybody would stop picking on Howard Dean.
After that, the situation cooled almost instantly when a student asked a puffball question "It's not quite boxers or briefs, but: Macs or PCs?" The attack on Dean was over, and the debate settled into the normal routine of the five Democratic debates that preceded it.
It's not clear what effect the episode will have on Dean. On the one hand, he threw conventional wisdom out the window by refusing to apologize for his remark. Given that his remark was about the Confederate flag, that was a very, very risky strategy. On the other hand, Dean showed a lot of guts by refusing to apologize he was, after all, making a valid point about the Democratic party's alienation of southern voters and that might impress some voters.