Steaks, Pragmatism, and the View From the Delta

At first, there was something comforting in the predictability of the evening's conversation. At Doe's Eat Place on Nelson Street in Greenville, Miss., last Wednesday, within the space of perhaps five minutes, I was twice told that "the media" are too liberal. (Once was by my father-in-law, a Sarah Palin admirer, who delights in Bill O'Reilly's occasional volleys against NEWSWEEK.) With the possible exception of South Carolina, Mississippi has been the most reliably conservative state in the country since Fielding Wright, the state's governor, ran as Strom Thurmond's vice president on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948. It is tempting to paint the scene at Doe's as something you would expect in an unreconstructed red-state redoubt, and then perhaps contrast the gathering in the Delta with the president's prime-time press conference as images of parallel worlds that will never intersect.

But that narrative, however appealing in its familiarity, feels at once glib and antique. I am not going to argue that the 2008 election has put Mississippi in play; the state George Wallace carried has so successfully channeled the politics of race into the politics of small government (but don't touch those agricultural subsidies or the shipbuilding contracts on the gulf) that we will most likely grow old in a nation in which Mississippi is a fully owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.

Still, one of the hallmarks of the age in which we are living is the crackup of traditional categories of left and right. Part of this story is demographic: the United States will soon be a majority-minority nation, and for younger voters of any background the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s are interesting case studies, not lived experience. At the moment, beginning with the president, the Democratic Party seems to reflect the country we are becoming more accurately than the GOP does.

Which brings us back to Doe's. Why wasn't the scene there—the complaints about the Eastern press, which are at least as old as Agnew; the laments about the stimulus bill; and the possibility of an expanded government role in health care—itself an accurate reflection of an understandable political divide?

Because the complaints and the laments lacked passion: they felt pro forma, more like lines in a play delivered by troupers ready for the summer season to be over. By the end of the night even my father-in-law conceded that a Palin presidency might not be the best of ideas.

We were in town for the funeral of an old friend, John Barthell Joseph, who had been Clarke Reed's business partner for half a century. The father of NEWSWEEK contributor Julia Reed, Clarke is the godfather of the GOP in Mississippi, if not the whole South. A longtime friend of William F. Buckley Jr.'s—an early employer of Haley Barbour, now the governor and a likely 2012 presidential candidate—he is a legendary figure, a player in the epic Ford-Reagan battles and other fabled moments in the rise of the right. Over tamales and steaks the other night he was realistic about his team's quandary. "Obama is something else," Reed said, with grudging admiration. "Cool, cool, cool"—"cool" being the noblest laurel in Reed's lexicon. "I don't know how we beat him yet, but we won't beat him at all—and shouldn't, you know?—unless we have more to say, more to talk about. It's got to be about ideas, man." Conservatism, Reed pointed out, is a hardy force—it survived Watergate, after all—but the old formulas need revision.

That, at least, is a view from Doe's. I have been in the South for several weeks now and have been struck, mostly in passing conversations, by the dearth of ideological cable cant. Conservatives beyond the media axis seem more open to pragmatism and realism both on tactics and policy issues. Democrats are not mindlessly ebullient about being in power: the pragmatic ones among them appear to understand that this is not 1933 or 1965.

As the major legislative struggles begin to unfold, both sides have a chance to win capital with the vast, unorganized, but no less real party of pragmatists in the great American middle. In Washington, the Republicans cannot pretend that there are no problems government can help solve. The Democrats cannot fail to compromise, and should acknowledge that anxieties about taxes and an expanding government are not hysterical but real and well founded. Purists of the right and of the left will recoil at such talk, but dinner at Doe's suggests that more people are thinking practically rather than ideologically, and sometimes common sense can lead to uncommon wisdom. And then everyone can get back to bashing the liberal media, an old reflex all its own.