LAKEWOOD, Colo.--In my lifetime there have been three native sons of the South who became president: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. There have been two Southern vice presidents: LBJ and Al Gore.
The number of Southern-born Republicans to hold those top two offices? None. And no, Bush 31 and 33 don't count--they were both born and raised in New England and moved to Texas as adults.
Why are all our Southern presidents Democrats? Because even as the Southern Republicans continue to make gains regionally (most recently when two black members of the Georgia legislature changed parties) the legacy of the Southern Strategy has limited the appeal of Southern Republican candidates on the national stage, usually thanks to gaffes of their own making.
Its most recent victim is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, whose presidential ambitions went where "it wasn't that bad".
Barbour gets a lot of credit in the press for "overcoming the stereotype" about white Southern men. Based on his recent pronouncements, it's entirely possible he is the stereotype.
The Southern Strategy, for those of you unfamiliar with it, was a decision by the Republican party to use white voters' fears and prejudices after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act to realign the formerly Democratic South with Republicans.
It may have reached its zenith in 1980 when Ronald Reagan decided to kick off his 0residential campaign with a speech on "states' rights" at the Neshoba County Fair in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Neshoba County was where civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964.
According to Mike Gehrke, former research director at the DNC and now a pollster, "The real story is that Republican Party still can't figure out how to deal with the divisiveness of the Southern Strategy. And the real political question is whether the Republican Party is really ready to nominate a presidential candidate from the Deep South... They never have and that's not because of what Democrats or the media say about them. It's because even Republicans are disturbed by the ugliness that their party embraced until very recently."
But of course Washington, whose handicapping propensities make Vegas look classy, continues to promote Newt Gingrich as a contender and lay odds on a Barbour comeback.
That will not happen. Because no matter how pundits try to parse it, you cannot politically handicap an election by trivializing racism.
In 1995, former segregationist George Wallace welcomed former leaders of the civil rights leaders to the state capitol in Alabama to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march. Cornhusk-frail in his wheelchair, too sick to speak, he nonetheless had an aide read a speech for him asking for forgiveness for those ugly events three decades ago.
In 2005, Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman attempted to decry his party's history of exploiting racial fears to win elections.
More recently, Michael Steele admitted that the Republican Party had been engaged in a race-based Southern Strategy for 40 years.
Until Southern Republicans candidates do the same (and I’m talking to you, Mike Huckabee)--publicly repudiate the Southern Strategy, ask for forgiveness for its repugnant excesses, and stop using racial dog-whistle phrases like "states' rights"--they will always be viewed with appropriate suspicion by the electorate at large. And they will remain unelectable on the national stage.
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