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The Shah and the Ayatollah, Part I: As Mississippi Goes...

By September 23, 2007

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See Also: Civil Liberties in Mississippi

This column is the first in a two-part series dealing with a possible realignment in the Democratic and Republican parties, and the impact of this possible realignment on American civil liberties. The second installment, focusing on the 2008 presidential campaign, will follow at a later date.

Haley Barbour
Governor Haley Barbour (R-MS). Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images.



Stop me if you've heard this one before:

The incumbent is wealthy, well-connected, and cosmopolitan. But although he brings considerable money into his domain, probably due in part to the strong ties he has with outsiders, there is some resentment emerging from three sectors: the extremely poor, the extremely provincial, and the extremely religious. The incumbent is criticized for his globe-spanning rolodex, for his drinking, for rumors of corruption, for his friendships with secular outsiders. He is criticized for not increasing social mobility, perceived as a friend of the wealthy and not the poor. Under his leadership, his domain is becoming more modern, more secular, and less egalitarian, or so the story goes.

But standing in opposition to the incumbent is a challenger: deeply religious, deeply provincial, an advocate for the poor. Although he is wealthy and cosmopolitan himself, he condemns the wealthy and cosmopolitan and, using the language of religion, promises to drive away outsiders and reaffirm what he describes as the traditional cultural values of his domain. No longer will his domain be decadent, so dependent on outsiders, so willing to tolerate secularism and the alleged licentiousness he associates with it. He promises us that he will ring in a new golden age.

I could be describing Iran in the months leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Or I could be describing the gubernatorial race in Mississippi, one of the three states that will hold its statewide elections this November. In both cases, the incumbent is being challenged primarily based on an unusual three-pronged strategy of nativism, poverty relief, and religious anti-modernism. And while the strategy is unusual and distinctive in American politics right now, it will not remain so for long. The political situation in Mississippi foreshadows what many Democratic idea leaders are already calling "the new Southern Strategy."

The Lawyer and the Lobbyist

At first glance, Democratic challenger John Arthur Eaves, a multimillionaire personal injury lawyer who has never held elected office, doesn't sound like much of a revolutionary. A seventh-generation Mississippian, Eaves follows in the footsteps of his father, also named John Eaves, a perennial gubernatorial candidate in the 1970s and 1980s. The elder John Eaves was known primarily for his outspokenly progressive views on civil rights, unusual in Mississippi at that time. The younger John Eaves was primarily known, before his gubernatorial campaign, for television ads publicizing his law practice.

But election campaigns are generally referenda on incumbents, and Mississippi's incumbent is no exception. Governor Haley Barbour arrived in Mississippi in 2003 after 20 years working in Washington, DC. An unapologetic multimillionaire lobbyist, Barbour had also served as national leader of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997--a period that included the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, the first time Republicans had held a majority in both houses since 1954. Barbour, too, challenged an incumbent: Governor Ronnie Musgrove (D-MS). Musgrove held office at a time when Mississippi's economy was not doing well, and although Barbour's DC lobbyist background seemed a strange fit for the governor's mansion, he ultimately defeated Musgrove to become only the second Republican Mississippi governor since Reconstruction.

In 2007, Barbour is coasting on high post-Katrina approval ratings and what will probably become a $13 million campaign war chest. Conventional wisdom says that he's unbeatable, which makes the campaign against him a perfect laboratory to test new ideas--or, in this case, very old ideas.

Eaves has unapologetically taken on the mantle of a prophet. Here, for example, is his own summary of his campaign agenda:
By following the example set by Jesus we can bring people together to promote Mississippi values and create opportunity for every Mississippi family. My loyalty is and always has been with the people of this state, not the moneychangers of big insurance, big oil and big tobacco. I want Mississippi to be a place where our children are able to learn and pray in the best schools and our families have the grocery tax relief and good-paying jobs they deserve. As governor, I’ll make sure we have a state as strong as the soul of our people.
In this statement, in Eaves' platform, in his stump speeches, in his advertisements, and in the first gubernatorial debate, three themes emerge in Eaves' campaign. And like a stand-up comedian trying out new material, national Democratic strategists are watching closely to determine what plays well and what doesn't.

Driving Out the Moneychangers

Eaves' critique of Barbour centers primarily on one word: "moneychangers." He uses the word almost compulsively in his speeches--five times in his League of Women Voters questionnaire alone. But what does it mean?

The biblical precedent for the language is clear:
And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves. (Mark 11:15-17)
But Eaves, who refuses all out-of-state contributions, uses the term to refer to Barbour's national allies--drawing on a regional, Mississippi-first sentiment. As he said in his speech at Mississippi's most important political event, the Neshoba County Fair:
Haley Barbour has opened the doors of power to the moneychangers: Big tobacco, big oil, big insurance. These groups—-who Haley [Barbour] has lobbied for—-may talk about helping Mississippi, but they are merely wolves in sheep’s clothing who have been making false promises and pulling the financial strings of our leaders to force us to accept false choices ...

These moneychangers have led us astray, and the current governor has continued to side with them over the people of Mississippi because, as we all know, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Eaves' regionalism is not limited to the rich. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of Mexican-American migrant workers--both undocumented and legal, H2B-visa-holding laborers--were brought in to work on the Coast. Mississippi's population has historically been less than 1% Latino, with that 1% living primarily in and around the state's urban areas. Large numbers of rural Mississippians who had never had Latino neighbors prior to Hurricane Katrina suddenly found themselves sharing their counties with new immigrants. For the most part, this has gone well--perhaps surprisingly well, considering Mississippi's history. But during Mississippi's primary elections, some Republican candidates discovered, and exploited, the phrase "illegal immigrants."

Haley Barbour never took the bait. While his position on immigration appears to be the traditional mainstream Republican position, he never campaigned on anti-immigrant sentiment--addressing the issue only when asked. (This turned out to be wise, as it appeared to have no effect on the outcome of primary races.) He was also careful to humanize undocumented immigrants when he did talk about them. When a reporter asked him about his views on immigration, for example, he stated the party line--and then added:
We have a lot of Spanish people that are here and I don’t know what we would have done without them on the coast. They are playing an indispensable role down there.
The Eaves campaign capitalized on this, responding:
I know where we’d be. We could have record employment instead of the highest unemployment in the South. We could be leading the region in job creation and recovery. We could have built homes for the 70,000 people still living in toxic FEMA trailers.
Because Barbour's statement referred to both legal and undocumented workers, Eaves' reply could be accurately characterized as one of the most explicitly anti-Latino statements made in the course of the 2007 election season. Many progressive activists who wrote at great length of the dangers of anti-immigrant rhetoric during the Republican primary season abruptly went silent when Eaves capitalized on the issue. Much like leaders in the national Democratic Party, they are watching and learning.

Jesus Rode a Donkey

The soul of Mississippi is mysterious, inscrutable, infinitely complex and full of contradiction. The nation's poorest state, it also leads the nation in charitable giving. The state with the highest African-American population and the highest number of African-American elected officials, it has a Confederate insignia on its flag and a well-deserved reputation for regressive civil rights policy. And the nation's most reliably conservative state in national elections (it hasn't gone Democratic since 1976), it has a predominantly Democratic state legislature and a long tradition of Democratic local officials. This probably has as much to do with longstanding post-Reconstruction anti-Republican sentiment than anything else, but there is an obvious connection between the values of Christianity and "bleeding heart liberal" social policies that care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and children.

Eaves is making this implicit connection explicit, using it to define a fiscal policy that is both extremely vague and, in its own way, extremely appealing. As Eaves said in an interview earlier this year:
I’m a Democrat because I’m a Christian, and I believe in the true calling of Christ. When he came here, what did he do? He did three things: He healed the sick—today we call that health care. He told us the truth, and to understand the truth you need to have an education. And he came to help the poor—we call that economic development. Mississippi is a good place to start for that. We’re the poorest in the nation.
Barbour is vulnerable on fiscal policy. Earlier this year, he successfully blocked an extremely popular initiative that would have eliminated the state's 7-percent grocery tax in favor of a 75-cent tax on cigarettes. His argument was that the 75-cent tax on cigarettes wouldn't raise as much revenue as the 7-percent grocery tax, plunging municipalities into bankruptcy. His opponents' argument was that Barbour's history as a tobacco lobbyist forced him to kill the bill. To this day, I don't know which statement is true. Maybe both. Maybe neither.

Barbour was also harshly criticized by many, myself included, for allegedly cutting as many as 65,000 Mississippians, including tens of thousands of children, from the Medicaid roster. Barbour argues that this was an enforcement of current fraud-prevention policies, and that he plans to get as many as 70,000 of Mississippi's 100,000 uninsured children enrolled in the federally-funded SCHIP program. Eaves, and many others, argue that the cuts were an example of Dickensian heartlessness central to the Republican Party's fiscal platform. Eaves has argued instead for a universal child health insurance program, called Kids Care, patterned after the successful universal child health care program enacted in Illinois. Although Eaves has been coy about the details of the program, especially the question of how he would both pay for the program and eliminate the grocery tax in the same budget, he is the first major-party Mississippi gubernatorial nominee to make children's health insurance a campaign issue. This is laudable--and if Eaves' commitment to religiously-guided policy were limited to human services initiatives, its ramifications on civil liberties would be anything but ominous.

Unfortunately, Eaves' human services initiatives are not the primary focus of his campaign.

The New Southern Strategy

In April, Dan Gilgoff--author of The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War (2007)--wrote an article for the Washington Post ("Holy Roller Democrat") in which he essentially described Eaves as the last, best hope for Democrats in Mississippi:
At stake is more than the governor's mansion in Jackson, but arguably the future of the national Democratic Party. That's because Democrats have almost completely lost their grip on the South, with the number of Southern Democratic U.S. senators dwindling from 20 in 1980 to five today. In the past two presidential elections, the Democratic ticket lost every Southern state. And despite Democratic Senate pickups in the so-called Upper South states of Missouri and Virginia in 2006, competitive statewide races that year in Tennessee and Florida went to Republicans. A win by Eaves "would be a shot across the bow to the Republican Party that Democrats can compete in the South again," says Mike Mikus, Eaves's chief campaign strategist.
Democrats can compete in Mississippi, and have for the most part dominated politics in this state for more than a century. Not counting the Reconstruction era, Mississippi has elected only two Republican governors in its entire history. The Mississippi House of Representatives is overwhelmingly Democratic, with 76 Democrats and 43 Republicans. And in August, roughly 450,000 voters showed up for the Democratic primary--compared to roughly 200,000 voters for the Republican primary. Democrats have a considerable home field advantage in Mississippi, due in large part to the fact that its 37% black population trends roughly 90% Democratic. This home field advantage tends to dissipate in national elections, but the idea of Democrats achieving success in Mississippi is hardly new.

You wouldn't know from reading Gilgoff's article that just four years ago the incumbent governor was a Democrat rather than a Republican, and that a black, female, pro-choice attorney and first-time statewide candidate stood a decent chance of unseating a popular moderate female Republican as lieutenant governor. Nor would you know, from reading Gilgoff's article, that our four-seat U.S. House delegation is evenly divided on party lines--two Democrats, two Republicans.

The Mississippi Democratic Party has its share of problems, but an unwillingness to field socially conservative candidates has never been one of them. The socially conservative and fiscally liberal "blue dog" is a staple of Mississippi politics. To that extent, John Eaves is nothing new. What is new is that he has been identified, and is identifying himself, almost exclusively on the basis of his social conservatism--and in the process attempting to stake out a rhetorical position slightly to the right of the Republican incumbent.

This is what makes Eaves new. No longer content to play defense on his socially conservative positions, he is playing offense.

"These Are My Values"

The first John Eaves television ad I saw started off well. The first 10 seconds dealt with his support of education funding and teacher pay--two uncontroversial and largely bipartisan positions. But for the next 20 seconds, I saw the new Democratic Southern strategy at work: A vow to enact "voluntary school prayer" if elected, along with "Bible classes to teach our kids right from wrong."

What distinguishes John Eaves from a traditional blue dog like Ronnie Musgrove is not his support of voluntary school prayer or Bible literacy classes. Musgrove never vetoed a bill for introducing too much religion in school. What makes Eaves different is the fact that voluntary school prayer and Bible literacy classes are the centerpiece of his education agenda. Eaves has stated on more than one occasion that his very first act as governor would be to mandate voluntary school prayer. Musgrove's commercial on education would have spent all 30 seconds on funding, teacher pay raises, and similar issues. It would not have raised establishment clause violations to the level of signature policy initiatives, and Musgrove would not have promised to make an establishment clause violation his first act as governor.

Another Eaves commercial caught the ire of Steve Gillespie, managing editor of the Meridian Sun. In the advertisement, Eaves states that "marriage is between a man and a woman" and promises to "protect the rights of the unborn," boasting: "[I] take my family to church on Sunday." Eaves has even taken on gambling, vowing to "prevent the expansion of the casinos"--a major source of pre-Katrina coastal revenue. On policy initiatives not directly related to his religious beliefs, however, Eaves tends to be vague--and brief. Gillespie writes:
Many Mississippi Democrats who wouldn’t have been caught dead voting for Haley Barbour four years ago will run, not walk, to the polls in support of him this November.
And Barbour will almost certainly win the election itself, though not for this reason; he was predicted to anyway, which is why Eaves faced no serious challengers for his party's nomination. The primary benefit of the Eaves campaign will be to national Democrats who are watching carefully to see if his unique blend of aggressive social conservatism, overt nativism, and vague but liberal fiscal policy affects the demographics of his base, and what they learn from this data will inform next year's party strategy. If they like what they see, Eaves may be the shape of things to come.

And if current polling trends continue, these new Democratic candidates may very well be running their state and district races against the backdrop of a national election in which, for the first time in more than 30 years, there is no culture war dynamic in play.

Comments

September 23, 2007 at 3:35 pm
(1) Butch says:

I donít see any way Eaves will be a model for anyone. He is a clown.

What I find intriguing is how this time in Mississippi we will have to choose between a practically secular Republican and an outright theocrat running as a Democrat. I am enjoying watching my fundamentalist friends who have professed for so long that the only godly candidate was Republican squirm.

September 24, 2007 at 5:29 pm
(2) Sumner says:

As a Democrat, a gay man, and a Buddhist, I say that this brand of Democrat scares me as much as any Republican. Religion has long been the myth-stick with which to beat my community; I would hate to see the Democrats treat the GLBT community as the Republicans treat us based on their understanding of their bibles. Being a gay Republican is self-loathing behavior and I do not want it to be so for a gay Democrat. After all, we only have two Democratic presidential candidates, Kucinich and Gravel, who are willing to see the GLBT community as equals and state that we are deserving of marriage . . . while the others cannot clearly state why they are against same-sex marriage and prefer to treat us as second class citizens.

November 3, 2007 at 4:00 pm
(3) MSchuck says:

Eaves may be running as a christian but his lifestyle cetainly doesn’t reflect the presence of Judeo-Christian principles. It’s laughable really. No one talks about the glaring contridictions between the man and the campaign he’s trying to run. Trust me only ignorant people are squirming.

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