Politics: Bubba Hubbub

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As soon as Bill Clinton locked up the nomination, those of us who write about the South for a living started getting phone calls from reporters asking about the meaning of it all, and when Clinton picked young Al Gore as his vice-presidential candidate the pace really picked up. The last time this happened was 1976, when Jimmy Carter's nomination provoked a rash of omigod-what's-going-on-down-there stories in the press. Here we go again.

This time, though, the questions are different. This year they want to know whether Clinton and Gore are "really" Southerners. (Nobody asked that about Jimmy.) I confess that I haven't been able to resist ripping off a Wall Street Journal line from the 1988 primaries: Al Gore, the Journal observed then, was less a Southern candidate than a Washington political consultant's idea of a Southern candidate.

But that's not fair. It's true that Gore's notoriously wooden oratorical style was definitely at odds with the Southern tradition, and he was (as a friend of mine claims to have seen with his own eyes) the kind of guy who puts on his suit coat to go to a barbecue. But Gore's loosened up some since 1988. What's more, whether I like it or not, he really is a Southerner, of a kind, and Clinton even more so.

Not to put too fine a point on it, both men are Southern yuppies, a tribe as numerous as it is little known outside the South. The trouble is that very few non-Southerners have a repertoire of stereotypes adequate to deal with this relatively new feature of the South's social landscape. So we get nonsense like calling Clinton and Gore the "Double Bubba" ticket. Aside from the fact that Southerners themselves seldom use bubba as a common noun, the social type that word identifies is not what Clinton and Gore are.

Bubba is simply the latest incarnation of a well-established Southern white male type, what the press, writing about Carter and his associates in 1976, identified and chronicled as the "good old boy." (Daniel Hundley, writing in 1859, called him the "yeoman," and if you don't believe Hundley was talking about the exact same creature, read a fascinating book called Southern Folk, Plain and Fancy. I wrote it.) Since Yankee reporters are seldom attuned to Southern social distinctions, however, "good old boy" in their hands stopped being a perfectly useful label for a particular sort of working-class Southerner and wound up being applied to any male with even a trace of Southern accent. The same thing has happened to bubba this year.

Look, I don't have the space even to brief you on Bubba's identifying marks, but take this down: Bubba does not belong to a country club. He listens to country songs about not belonging to a country club.

Southern country clubs are, on the other hand, full of glad-handing, presentable guys pretty much like Bill Clinton—maybe not as smart, driven, liberal, or libidinous, but otherwise much the same. Southern college fraternities even used to have an expression for it: Clinton is a classic "face man."

So, sure, Clinton and Gore are Southerners. But they're housebroken—about as housebroken as Southerners can get these days and still be elected to statewide office. I mean, Clinton actually claims that his favorite book is One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This may be just a pitch for the Hispanic vote, but I'll bet it's the kind of overreaching you sometimes find among the culturally insecure Southern upper-middle class. (It's far better to say that your favorite book is Blasting for Bass and let your questioner try to figure out if you're joking.) And while it's true that both Clinton and Gore are Baptists, I can't believe that Clinton, anyway, is Jimmy Carter's kind of Baptist—that is, the real thing. Can you seriously imagine a President Clinton praying for guidance, or asking foreign heads of state about their religious condition, or lecturing federal employees about living in sin? If I'm wrong I apologize, but Clinton strikes me as being Baptist the way, say, John Kennedy was Catholic.

Given all this, it's ironic when Jay Leno makes jokes about "trying to get that all-important Hee Haw vote." Those of us who enjoy ethnic jokes at other groups' expense really can't complain (although we can point out that it's roughly like saying Jesse Jackson had to be placated lest the all-important watermelon vote be lost). Still, that crack has the remarkable property of annoying both Southerners who like Hee Haw and Southerners who don't.

And when Republicans engage in similar badinage, they win no friends for their party or their candidates. Dan Schnur, chief spokesman for California Gov. Pete Wilson, might as well have been on the Clinton-Gore payroll when he said that "Bill Clinton and Al Gore fit in about as well in California as the Beverly Hillbillies. They're like Granny and Ellie May sitting on the back of the truck." When that kind of stuff gets reported back in Carolina, it makes even me want to vote for them.

So why did the Democrats nominate two Southerners? Well, I guess they couldn't help nominating Clinton after he won all those primaries, but why did they go along with putting another Southerner on the ticket? I think former Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich gave a pretty good answer at the convention when she revised Henry Clay for the 1990s: She's tired of being right, she said; she wants to win instead.

Think about it. Since 1945 the Democrats have won with candidates from Texas, Georgia, and the border state of Missouri (whether Kennedy actually won depends on your view of those Illinois returns), and they've lost with candidates from Illinois (twice), Minnesota (twice), South Dakota, and Massachusetts. See a pattern? Even flatworms can learn with reinforcement like that. (Jimmy Carter's 1980 re-election loss just shows that geography isn't everything.) What's more, a new book called The Vital South, by political scientists Merle and Earl Black, argues persuasively that it's almost impossible to win a presidential election these days if you don't carry the South and strongly implies that enough folks elsewhere share "Southern" views that you can probably win if you do carry it.

If you buy that, Gore becomes an obvious choice for the vice-presidential nomination. An all-Southern ticket won't automatically carry the South, but it's a good start. In the first place, Gore doesn't hurt Clinton in Dixie, as most of the available non-Southerners would have. In addition, once you get past the fact that Clinton and Gore are both from the South, they're quite different. From a Southern point of view, Gore levels out the potholes in Clinton's résumé very well.

You say Clinton dodged the draft? Gore's a vet. Clinton waffled on war with Iraq? Gore didn't. Clinton's too cozy with the Yankees and "special interests" who run the Democratic Party these days? Gore ran against Dukakis and Jesse Jackson in the 1988 primaries. Clinton's wife is a lawyer who puts down Tammy Wynette? Gore's is a blonde homemaker who gets fierce only when her cubs are threatened by degenerate rappers and heavy-metal scum. It's not exactly that Gore is the Good Twin, the Anti-Clinton; he's more like the responsible older brother to young Billy, the scamp.

It's just a bonus that Gore also firms up Clinton's ties to several traditional Democratic groups, concentrated largely outside the South. Does organized labor prefer even Jerry Brown to Clinton? Gore's a strong labor man, like his daddy before him. Does Clinton's lust to keep jobs in Arkansas give him a suspect environmental record? Gore's unreadable book reassures the greens. You say the Permanent Government sees Clinton as a small-state governor with no D.C. experience? Gore grew up in Washington. Clinton didn't inhale? Gore did.

Sure, some old-timey Northern Democrats are nervous and resentful about the new Southern ascendancy. My buddy Doug was at the convention and overheard a couple of delegates discussing in an elevator how uneasy it made them to have to vote for two Southern Baptists; when he asked what if their party had nominated two Jews and he'd said in his accent that he was nervous about that, a chilly silence descended. It was fun, too, to watch Mario Cuomo try to keep from sneering each of the many times he said "Arkansas" in his convention speech. But what are these bigots going to do, vote for Bush-Quayle? Come on. Most of the pros, at least, seem to agree with Susan Estrich. They'll try to keep their regional prejudices under wraps and hope they get some appointments.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how the Democrats' Southern strategy plays out. Clinton and Gore are demonstrably the kind of Democrats who can win elections in the South because, after all, they've won some. It's hard to imagine a Democratic ticket that would run better in the South, unless maybe Gore and Clinton switched places. Is that good enough?

Well, let's do the numbers. First, despite a considerable degree of social and cultural conservatism, Southern blacks are still reliably and overwhelmingly Democratic. With or without Jesse Jackson's enthusiasm, Clinton and Gore will do as well there as any white candidates could. They'll also collect the votes of the small if noisy contingent of moderate-to-liberal white Southern Democrats (many of them migrants from other parts). On the other hand, most Southern wealth is too new to be apologetic, so upper-middle-class Southern whites are almost reflexively Republican these days. These voters will stick with Bush, even though many think he's too liberal. The few remaining die-hard Dixiecrats won't vote Democratic either.

As the Black brothers point out in their book, that leaves the choice up to the large body of conservative Democrats and independent voters, many of them white working-class folk (Bubba and his wife, if you insist). These folks voted for Bush in 1988 but tend to be seriously put out with him these days. Many flirted with Perot last spring, and some of them may be ready to return to the party of their ancestors if it makes even the slightest pretense of returning to them. By running Clinton and Gore, it's making that pretense.

Now, it's a safe bet that Bill Clinton won't get most of their votes. But he doesn't have to: a strong minority will do. In early August, a South Carolina poll showed Clinton trailing Bush by a double-digit margin among whites—this at a time when Clinton led nationally by more than 30 points and was even ahead of Bush in Orange County, California. But that same poll showed Clinton with a comfortable lead in South Carolina overall, thanks to the lopsided support of black voters.

The Democrats' problem lately has been that they haven't come anywhere even near the 30 percent or 40 percent of the white vote that they need to win. Even leaving aside the possibility of some "October surprise," it's hard to say whether this ticket can turn that around. But Merle Black told me in August about a Democratic Party worker who was handing out bumper stickers at a rally in South Carolina. "This year," he said, "they're going to put those things on the outside of their cars."

John Shelton Reed is William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His most recent book is Whistling Dixie: Dispatches from the South.