A Gift To Dems | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Gift To Dems

Photo by Melissa Webster

No doubt, Democrats exit 2008 with a clear victory in federal government. Democratic President-elect Barack Obama claimed the White House with a 53-percent victory. Democratic President Bill Clinton, considered a hugely popular president throughout his two terms, never garnered more than 50 percent of the national vote.

Obama also exits 2008 with high approval. Rasmussen reports that 60 percent of the nation's voters approve of the way Obama is handling his role as president-elect so far, and Gallup shows that 66 percent of Americans have high confidence in him, and only 28 percent have low confidence in the next president.

Democrats have also undercut the Republican advantage in the House and Senate. Republicans will have no more than 42 Senate seats this year, and Dems could still reach the magical 60-seat number, depending on Minnesota and Georgia outcomes. Democrats also have increased their 30-seat disadvantage in the House in 2004 to a 30-percent advantage, an incredible turnaround, by any measure.

The future of the Democratic Party, as repeated by politicos, is theirs to destroy.

Democratic 'Axis of Evil'?
Political columnist and Ole Miss journalism professor Joe Atkins said the Obama administration would likely bring with it a modern vision of government that would move away from the conservative-leaning views of the Clinton administration, with more regulation, some government aid to industries, with an emphasis on the middle class and rebuilding the nation's infrastructure.

"The Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton announced that the day of big government had come to an end and began pushing for free trade and welfare reform," Atkins said. "Now we're at the end of the Reagan/Bush/Clinton era, and we've seen government stripped down to the point where our parks and infrastructure are falling apart. and we've got huge deficits because of military spending. Obama seems to have a plan to take the nation in a different direction and, right now, the public appears to be behind him."

What works for the national party may not resound with local Democrats, however. The South, long an important factor in national Democratic primaries—both recent Democrat Presidents Clinton and Jimmy Carter were southerners—found itself marginalized this year. The state party must contend with a population that remains resoundingly conservative, if not outright Republican, even in the face of a nationwide political upheaval, leading some pundits to predict that the GOP will be a regional southern party for years to come.

Mississippi Democrats know they must work inside a state where social issues like gay marriage and abortion remain effective power tools in the hands of Republicans, even as national Democrats solidify their dominance. Democratic candidates like Senate candidate Ronnie Musgrove and Rep. Travis Childers paraded their support for gun rights and marriage defense, even in the face of the slumping national economy—which took first place among national voters' concerns during the last election—fearing that Mississippians will vote more for divisive wedge issues than their pocketbooks.

And many did nationally and in the state, giving John McCain 57 percent of the vote to Obama' 43 percent, and Roger Wicker a small win over Musgrove, who ran almost as conservative as Wicker on social issues, even though Musgrove is more supportive of public education and Wicker has been lockstep with a Bush administration whose financial policies and anathema to regulation has hit Mississippians' pocketbooks hard.

Irene T. Jones, a member of the Mississippi Democratic Party's executive committee, said the populations of southern states stood to gain the most out of the more progressive policies of the Obama administration. She said the party should underwrite a massive education campaign touting those gains as they happened.

"Democrats have to work to re-educate voters to better get the information out about what exactly they're voting for. If people are educated as to what's in their best interest, they will vote more accordingly," Jones said. "The problem is if you've been raised and taught for years that a certain party is the axis of evil, and that there is a group of people who don't look like you who are keeping you from reaching your social height, it takes a lot to shift from that. That was given to you like your Momma's breast milk."

Jones said she is "the eternal optimist," and feels that education can happen "one voter at a time."

"Thankfully, we don't need to change everybody's mind—just half, plus one," she said.

Democratic author and political commentator Jere Nash said the future success of his party will likely sit on the shoulders of the new Democratic president.

"The clear burden on the ability of Democrats to consolidate the voters on their win on Nov. 4 lies almost completely with Barack Obama and whether or not he runs a competent government," Nash said.

"If he is competent at addressing the health-care issue, international terrorism, Iraq, and running the day-to-day federal government or getting the economy back on track, then there's almost nothing Republicans can do in the next generation to overcome that."

But Jones said state Democrats were putting too much value on Obama, and letting local elections slide, as indicated by last week's local run-off elections for Hinds County election commissioner.

"When I went to the poll at 5:43 p.m. last week, I was No. 32. When I went on Election Day at 10 a.m., I was number 180. The problem is connecting Mississippians to elected positions such as election commissioner, and transportation commissioner and public service commissioner. Local and state elected officials have more influence on our lives than national figures."

Jones warned that the state party also needed to work doubly hard to promote state and local elections for Obama's policies to prove a success in Mississippi.

"We need to have like-minded, statewide and local officials in position to make sure that we have the right policies in place which are positive for Mississippians once the federal policies are set. If Obama says he wants to make a change in education, well, we need to make sure that local policy doesn't contradict his national policy."

Jones warned that wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage will continue to be a hard weapon to overcome over the next few years, even if the party proves popular on a nationwide scale.

The Future of the Black Vote
Some of the more effective social issues could even help Republicans make gains among the state's black population if the party ever manages to separate itself from the taint of racism introduced by the Nixon-Reagan "southern strategy" to appeal to racist sentiment to attract voters to the Republican Party. Black voters, so far, have been historically out of the party's reach. Politico reported that Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said as much at a recent Republican convention in Miami, describing the party's target audience of whites as "a comb over."

Conservative author and political strategist Andy Taggart said it wouldn't take much for the Mississippi Republican Party to win over new converts, even among blacks, primarily because the state is already so conservative. The party has a strong foothold in the South due to the area's conservative bent, but Taggart said that ideology would rightfully be extending to the area's black population had racism not been such a dividing factor.

"Most African Americans vote with the Democratic Party, but that's a consequence of the strength and position the party took during the Civil Rights Movement. … On the social issues, African Americans are, by and large, more conservative than whites in the South, and if we ever reach the point that race is not a determining factor in people's electoral decisions, and they base their decisions upon social and economic issues, then you'll find more and more elections showing blacks and whites in the South voting shoulder to shoulder on issues," Taggart said.

Taggart contemplates a future where the Republican Party's connection to racism becomes more tenuous. Bitterness could fade over the fact that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed voting rights into reality, essentially flipping the party's views on race issues, and that Ronald Reagan campaigned against Lyndon's decision to impose the federal government's preference of fair voting rights by promoting "state's rights." (States' rights is a code phrase that has long identified support for segregation laws. Reagan endorsed states' rights at the launch of his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., and summarily got an endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan.)

Jackson businessman Socrates Garrett said he also believed blacks to be a largely socially conservative group. The Nov. 4 passage of Proposition 8, an amendment to the California Constitution outlawing gay marriage, owed much of its success to the approval of a large black population that turned out to vote for Obama.

"Blacks share many Republican values," Garrett said. "Blacks believe that if you don't work, you don't eat. We came from full employment on the farm. When you were five years old, you had a job. You worked in the field along with everybody else, and you ate alongside everybody else, but blacks vote against their economic interest because of cultural issues that have happened over the years. The Republican philosophy better fits my economic status, but I can't vote my economic interest because of history. I'm trapped in that box."

Jaribu Hill, community activist and former candidate for Senate District 22, said a few conservative views shouldn't designate blacks as wholeheartedly conservative.

"Some of our views on abortion or gay marriage shouldn't be the barometer that decides our political leaning as a people," Hill said. "It's a narrow and a manipulative frame that tugs at heartstrings and makes us look through a lens in a distorted way. It attempts to co-opt certain values that people have in an effort to capture votes."

Like Jones, Hill said Democrats would have to work hard to keep new voters, particularly blacks, informed on a wide variety of issues, so that Republicans could not claim them on the basis of a handful of beliefs.

"Without political education, the youth will be preyed upon and recruited by the right wing to be politically backward," Hill said. "It's the responsibility of everyone to enlighten their children and their peers."

In any case, the benefits of Republican inroads into the black community, however difficult, could be limited to the South, Nash argued.

"It could happen, no question. Republicans could claim the African American vote," Nash said.

"As we get further and further away from the Civil Rights Movement, and the black middle class expands and becomes more numerous, at least in the South, the social cultural issues will take on more importance with black voters. But once you leave the South, by and large, except for a few cities here and there, the black vote is not that important. It's about population, and the largest population is here in the South."

The Latino Vote
As Republicans wrestle with how to court blacks, Democrats may have to work harder to solidify gains among the state's Latino population in the upcoming years. Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler said the Republican Party had largely hamstrung itself among the nation's growing Hispanic population this election cycle because of party members' highly televised war on illegal immigrants over the last four years. Many of the party's Mississippi members razed that bridge, including Republicans running for statewide races, like Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant (who released a largely debunked report on the financial drain illegal immigrants pose), and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann (who campaigned on the bogus platform of keeping illegal immigrants from voting).

But immigrants have had a positive history with Republicans. Cuban immigrants in Miami, for example, made history in 2000 thanks to their support for George W. Bush, which made the infamous Florida recount possible by bringing Bush's vote tally within striking distance of the presidency. Many Latino immigrants themselves are socially conservative, according to Chandler, and strongly oppose things like abortion and gay rights. Miami Cubans largely turned out for Bush in 2000 and 2004 because of the Republican Party's angry opposition to the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

A Republican Party catering to the Latino population in Mississippi would get the benefit of one of the fastest-growing populations in the region. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that more than 50,000 Latinos lived in the state in 2005, a huge jump from the Bureau's 1990 estimate of only 16,000.

Chandler said any party is capable of reversing course, and suspects more Republican insiders will be pushing for the Latino vote as the population grows. A Republican Party re-invigorated by Latino support would pose a serious problem for Democrats, and he warned that the Dems would have to make their current lukewarm support for Latino needs more obvious if they plan to compete.

"The strategy of white Democrats has lately been to assume blacks and Latinos will vote for them while they pander for the racist vote among whites. It's a strategic mistake to not represent the emerging black and Latino communities in the state. The Latinos on the Coast voted Musgrove, but what drew them was Obama. Had Obama not been a factor, there would have been significantly less votes from Latinos because nobody cared to reach out to them."

Chandler said politicians have been, for years, "pandering to the absolute worst" and fishing too hard away from minority communities.

"They don't provide the leadership, but then they fall to the crap that they perceive white voters like, rather than challenging those voters. With the change in demographics, any one of the parties has the potential to assume real power here in Mississippi and depose the white supremacist structure that we've had in this state since the beginning."

The resulting hole is easily big enough for an elephant, should one decide to lunge for it.

The Evolving Ass
As Republican Party factions war over whether to be more socially strident or more moderate, the Democratic Party's best strategy could hang in the outcome. Possible philosophical changes in the Republican Party may actually force Democrats to redefine themselves slightly in the upcoming years. Some Republicans are already toying with the prospect of adapting the platform to capture the minds of new voters.

Log Cabin Republican Policy Director Jimmy LaSalvia said his party was inching its way toward inclusion—even regarding homosexuals—despite the party's traditionally low tolerance for pro-gay endeavors, such as gay marriage.

LaSalvia said more Republican Party delegates this year were tolerant to the idea of gay marriage—an opinion that falls more in line with younger voters. He said more change is possible within the party with each new generation as younger members battle for serious evolution over the next few years in preparation for the next presidential election. GOP growth, they claim, will not be a matter of old elephants changing their minds; it will be a matter of old horses going out to pasture. The Democratic Party will then have to contend with what's left, and what's left, they'll find, may have borrowed some of their ideas.

Huntsman told Politico that he saw his party stretching into the no-man's-land of Democratic thinking in the future, particularly regarding the party's opposition to environment protection.

There is no sign of that kind of evolution in the state Republican Party just yet, however. Taggart, for example, said he could not see the party pushing for any success through philosophical changes based on "political expediency," and was unwilling to blame the party's failures this year on an out-dated platform.

"It's not that we're incapable of changing. John McCain demonstrated that somebody is capable of moving a political organization, including the Republican Party, in a direction that is perceived to be the right one in order to improve the chances of winning in November. I just think it was a wrong-headed strategy," Taggart said. Ӆ He demonstrated that moving to the center ends up attracting no one."

Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Jamie Franks said he believed personalities like Taggart and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour—recently voted vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association—were going to dominate their party for the next 10 years, allowing Democrats to avoid immediate policy changes.

"I can't see them changing, not even for something as popular as (government-expanded health care.) We've seen them fight Medicare and Medicaid. We've seen Barbour try to kick 65,000 elderly and disabled Mississippians off health care … and I cannot believe that the national Republicans Governor's association would even have a guy from Mississippi, like Haley Barbour, toting their banner now when they're in such disarray," Franks said. "It says plenty about where the party's going in the next few years, and I'm not worried."

See Adam Lynch's previous analysis of Republican challenges, "GOP Panic: How to Save The 'Party of Lincoln'".

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