Thursday, January 17, 2008

Right Idea, Wrong Carolina

North Dakota and South Dakota are, in the eyes of most Americans, largely indistinguishable. One has a mountain covered with presidential faces, the other a Peace Garden that exists so far off the beaten path that few people south of Bismarck have ever seen it (but the license plates continue to insist it's there). But to most U.S. citizens, both Dakotas conjure images of cold, underpopulated farmland, inhabited by hardy souls of Scandinavian extraction who are, by turn, grimly stoic and warmly welcoming. Politically, they are predictably Republican at the presidential level, but their conservatism is not doctrinaire. Each periodically elects moderate and even liberal Democrats to federal office. George McGovern and Tom Daschle were South Dakotans; both of North Dakota's U.S. Senators are currently mainstream Democrats.

In truth, of course, most Americans know almost nothing about North and South Dakota. They are not at all identical, but their names sound alike, and so people assume they are differentiated only by their individual flags and unique state flowers and birds. In fact, South Dakota—McGovern notwithstanding—is a significantly more conservative place, often on the front lines of the abortion wars, and may actually have more in common with its southern neighbor, Nebraska, than with its namesake twin. The two states aren't very similar geographically, either.

By contrast, ask any reasonably informed American about the two Carolinas and you will receive a very different sort of analysis. North Carolina, to those in the know, is the state of the Research Triangle; distinguished universities with storied basketball teams; one of the great underrated southern cities (Charlotte); and artists and post-modern hippies out west in Asheville, a town labeled as both a "New Age Mecca" and "New Freak Capital of the U.S."

South Carolina, on the other hand, retains a reputation as a backwater still mired in the politics of the past. Not only were the first shots of the Civil War fired there—at Fort Sumter—but the battle over the war's legacy continues with debates over where on public property to place the Confederate flag (formerly atop the capitol building, now on the state house lawn). The Palmetto State's most significant contributions to American political history were secessionist John C. Calhoun and segregationist J. Strom Thurmond.

There is, obviously, some unfairness here, as well. South Carolina has its own fine public and private colleges, not all of its citizens are obsessed with either the 1860s or 1960s, and its current congressional delegation is not particularly more reactionary than that of its larger neighbor. And North Carolina, for all its bragging about progressive leadership, did saddle the rest of us with Jesse Helms for three decades.

Nevertheless, as adjacent states go, the two Carolinas remain stunningly different. How, then, did South—rather than North—Carolina find itself gifted with one of the first and most important presidential primary elections? The answer goes back to the machinations of another son of the Palmetto State, a mean piece of work named Lee Atwater, a vicious campaigner who was the 1980s' answer to Karl Rove. (The race-baiting Willie Horton advertisements of 1988? Pure Atwater.) Working for Ronald Reagan in 1980, Atwater helped arrange his state's early placement on the primary schedule to help the right-wing Californian put down the "moderate" challenge of George H.W. Bush. Since then, no Republican has won the White House without first scoring a victory in the South Carolina primary.

Think of South Carolina as the anti-Iowa. Every four years, pundits and strategists remind us that going negative in Iowa is a campaign-killer. Iowans, whatever the faults of their caucuses, evidently possess a strong aversion to name-calling and mudslinging. Interstate 80, from Davenport to Council Bluffs, represents the high road of American politics, a place where candidates succeed by speaking openly about their hopes and ideals.

The low road, then, is I-26, the highway that binds South Carolina's three regions, running from Spartanburg to Charleston, via Columbia. Eight years ago, John McCain's candidacy suffered what turned out to be a fatal blow in the Palmetto State after supporters of George W. Bush fanned false rumors that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. Whether that smear actually determined the Arizona senator's loss cannot be known, but we do know that it went unpunished by the GOP electorate in South Carolina. This time around McCain's opponents have taken to accusing the former Vietnam-era POW of having collaborated with the enemy during his time in captivity, a ludicrous claim that would almost certainly laughed out of any other state in the union. For good measure, someone has also been providing Christian conservatives in South Carolina with cards, supposedly from Mitt Romney, that emphasize his Mormonism.

The Democratic race in South Carolina has not featured the same type of slime. Instead, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been busy causing their own problems by allowing the media to bait them into a debate about race. Nevertheless, one wonders exactly why the party permitted South Carolina to play such an important early role in the process, while punishing Michigan and Florida for trying to cut ahead in line. Outside of Utah and Idaho, there is probably no other state less likely to support the Democratic ticket in November. What brilliant strategic mind determined that placating the land of Calhoun and Thurmond was so important that it demanded possibly alienating the voters of two swing states, one of which effectively decided the last two freaking presidential elections? And if a first-in-the-nation southern state had to be located, how about one where the Democrats had a least a slight prayer of victory, say Virginia or Kentucky? Or Florida!

The South Carolina primary has done little to make us proud in recent years. Even if we ignore the sleaze-merchants who may or may not be operating with the tacit approval of one of McCain's opponents, there are still plenty of reasons to force South Carolina to jump into the Super Tuesday pool with everyone else. First, the country derives no benefit from a quadrennial debate about the role of the Confederate flag; other southern states have moved past that point and would be far more suitable early bellwethers. In addition, the GOP struggle for the Palmetto State's fundamentalist base causes politicians to say and promise things far more damaging to the country than any of the unfortunate pledges made every four years to Iowa corn farmers. Mike Huckabee, a supposedly legitimate presidential candidate, has just suggested amending the Constitution to make it consistent with the (Protestant) Bible. Maybe he really believes this, or maybe he is simply pandering to theocratic South Carolinians whose votes he needs to stay viable, but this potentially explosive and destructive debate is one that simply must be kept in Pandora's lockbox.

The Republicans will do whatever they want, of course, but it is long past time for the Democratic Party to knock South Carolina off its undeserved early primary pedestal. If the party wants to elevate a longshot southern state to the top of the list, surely they can find a better candidate. Heck, they can even use one with the name "Carolina". Just make it the other one.

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