A Defiant South Secedes Again

Last week, while republicans bustled about on Capitol Hill, no freshman seemed busier than Tennessee's Sen. Fred Thompson, the folksy lawyer-actor who won Al Gore's old seat. Thompson, who ran a strong cut-government campaign, dashed from interviews to presiding over the Senate to a press conference on term limits. At the weekend, as Thompson managed legislation on the floor, the man he thrashed last November, former Democratic representative Jim Cooper, was storing his belongings in the family garage back in Shelbyville, Tenn. Along with the books and files went an oldphotograph of Cooper's father, a governor of Tennessee in the 1940s, riding with FDR at the opening of the historic Chickamauga Dam, which brought electricity to the Southern hills. "The voters don't realize yet," said Cooper, "that the Republicans are going to preserve a lot of Democratic programs. Now that they are the majority, they will find out how hard it is to really deliver."

Antigovernment themes like Thompson's played so wellin the recent elections thatthey crushed even conservative Democrats like Cooper, who is best known for opposing the Clinton health plan as too liberal. As a result, for the first time since Reconstruction, a majority of congressmen and senators from the old Confederacy are Republican. And because the most powerful members of the new majority hail from Dixie, the "Contract With America" is being expounded by voices with distinctively Southern accents: Newt Gingrich of Georgia; Phil Gramm, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas; Trent Lott and Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

How did the Republicans manage to carry the South so convincingly? Chiefly by appealing to voters like Lee Kinnebrew, a Birmingham, Ala., suburbanite who voted Republican for the first time last year. "My vote was saying "Enough is enough'," said Kinnebrew. "We've had too much government intrusion in our lives and it's time to end it." Sound familiar? Read "Gone With the Wind," and you'll pick up similar talk from the secessionist hotheads at the Twelve Oaks barbecue. The South appears to be doing today what it did in the 1860s, but with ballots instead of bullets: trying to secede, this time by raising an army of Republican suburban politicians to curb government and cut taxes.

A lot of this talk, however,is hugely hypocritical. Taking Washington's money is as Southern as corn bread and bourbon whisky. In 1960 Sam Rayburn shook his fist at an audience of Texas voters who were grumbling about Washington. "You people who complain about income taxes," Rayburn yelled, "you should remember that you didn't have any incomes to pay a tax on before Roosevelt came into office." Daniel Patrick Moynihan taunts his Southern colleagues that the Tennessee Valley Authority was built with New York money, and he's right. Without the federal government, there would be no good roads, airports or interstates (the Department of Transportation); no alleviation of widespread poverty (social security, Medicare and Medicaid), and no federally supported farms and jobs (agricultural subsidies and military bases). As John Egerton, a Nashville, Tenn., writer, puts it: "We're ungrateful wretches is what we are."

Southerners are also stubborn about relinquishing their own entitlements, and their new congressional leaders aren't asking them to be selfless. Although the new Southern pols champion a balanced-budget amendment, they've pushed the most expensive parts of government off the table. Already declared safe are the social security and federal pensions that pour into the sun belt's flourishing retirement communities, as well as the billions of Pentagon dollars that maintain the region's military bases and defense contracts.

The only substantial program the new leadership is eager to take on is welfare, which affects a constituency with little voting power. The South, of course, has been spared many of the worst problems of the urban underclass, thanks in part to the fact that droves of Southern blacks fled north during and after World War II to escape enforced segregation.

Of course, Southerners aren't the only ones who insist that government be cut while refusing to give up their own benefits. But the fact is that Southerners get the most, pay in the least and appear unwilling to make the kinds of sacrifices that would enable sun-belt lawmakers to deliver a balanced budget or limited government.

Consider:

The South sends fewer tax dollars to Washington than any other region. According to the Tax Foundation, the average federal tax bill for a resident of Mississippi, for example, is $2,975; in Connecticut, it's more than twice that -- $7,105. Of the top 10 states that pay the most in U.S. taxes, not a single one is in the South. At the other end of the scale, of the states with the lowest tax bills, seven are Southern.

Southerners get more out of the federal government than anyone else. According to Harvard's Kennedy School, four of the five states most dependent on federal funds are Southern, with Alabama and Mississippi leading the pack.

There is an average of 12 military bases or installations per Southern state -- 50 percent more than the average for states outside the region. Texas alone nets $4 billion per year in active-duty and civilian military pay. New York, by contrast, gets just over $1 billion, which is much less than even tiny Alabama gets. And this doesn't include military retirees, half of whom -- 770,000 -- live in the South, collecting $12 billion a year in pensions, accounting for half of the Pentagon retirement budget.

The three suburban counties that soak up the most federal dollars, according to Common Cause Magazine, are all in the old Confederacy: Arlington County, Va. (home to thousands of bureaucrats); Brevard County, Fla. (home to the Kennedy Space Center), and Cobb County, Ga. (home to major Lockheed defense plant and to Newt Gingrich).

In wooing Dixie, the GOP has not relied solely on antigovernment attacks. The culture wars -- predominantly gun control and school prayer -- are particularly hard fought in the South, where Clinton's disapproval ratings run 10 points higher than they do elsewhere. Nevertheless, the most common characteristic of Southern Republicans is their reflexive antigovernment line. "We want big government off our backs," says Bill Gustafson, chairman of the Cobb County GOP. "What happened in 1994 has been coming for a long, long time, building up over the last 40 or 50 years."

But during those years, Cobb County, like much of the suburban South, was transforming itself with a lot of help from big government. In the '40s, Georgia politicians and businessmen talked Roosevelt into routing regional mail air traffic -- about the only air traffic there was in those days -- through Atlanta. In the '50s and '60s, the Atlanta airport, built largely by federal money, opened up the South to national and foreign investment. Meanwhile, Atlanta became the business capital of the New South, attracting professionals who built the suburbs from which politicians such as Gingrich would later arise.

Even more important than federally spawned infrastructure was Washington's pivotal role in desegregation. As recently as the '50s, with Jim Crow still prevailing, the South was a pariah. There was no major-league sport in the region and little convention business. Then came the Brown decision, the Kennedy Justice Department and the major civil- and voting-rights acts in 1964 and 1965. Football, baseball and basketball franchises began moving south. Today, Atlanta boasts the Braves, CNN -- and, next year, the Olympics.

Other Southern cities also benefited from Washington's gifts of desegregation, roads and airports. Eight of the top 10 states in terms of plant openings and expansions since 1991 are in the South. Nissan, Saturn, Toyota, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have all opened factories in the region, turning Dixie into a larger auto-manufacturing center than Michigan. Fortune magazine declared the capital of Jesse Helms's North Carolina, Raleigh-Durham, "the nation's best city for business." Why? In large part because of the area's Research Triangle, which is anchored by two huge federal labs. Even so, the area's moderate Democratic congressman, David Price, got beaten last year by a Republican police chief running on a cut-government-spending platform. "But you don't build roads with right-wing dogma," says Price, "and you don't do cancer research with inflexible ideology."

For now, in the flush of the first 100 days, such realities seem far away. But soon Southerners will find that drawing Washington's blood could hurt them a lot more than the self-styled rebels think.

Some states get more from Uncle Sam than they give. Three top winners are Southern.


Highest federal expenditures


per dollar of taxes paid





New Mexico              $1.96


Mississippi              1.63


West Virginia            1.45


North Dakota             1.41


Virginia                 1.38





Lowest expenditures





New Jersey                .67


Connecticut               .69


Delaware                  .69


New Hampshire             .69


Illinois                  .74








    
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