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Kahn of the dead

Do Georgia Democrats believe in resurrection?

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A man in a straw hat and a red-striped shirt is standing outside the ballroom at the Sheraton Midtown at Colony Square on election night strumming "Happy Days Are Here Again" on a four-string banjo.

But this isn't a happy day for the people inside the ballroom. They're members of the Democratic Party of Georgia. As they watch election results pour in, they're starting to realize they might never have a happy day again.

That is the way a party ends: not with a bang, but a banjo.

In a suite 26 floors above the ballroom, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, "the Big Guy," is somber and pale as poll numbers roll up the screen of a laptop computer like a CDC morbidity report. Democrats have lost the Georgia House to the Republicans. And they've lost a U.S. Senate seat with a candidate who could muster only 40 percent of the ballots, the absolute rock bottom Yellow Dog vote. A corpse could have done that well.

Well, almost. The undead Mac Barber got 39.5 percent in the Public Service Commission race.

"It's a total disaster for the Democratic Party," says former Congressman Buddy Darden, who watched the votes limp in with Taylor and other Democrats in the Sheraton suite. "The political landscape in Georgia has changed completely. Georgia has gone in one decade from the most Democratic state in the South to perhaps the most Republican."

The bulk of the damage was done in just two years. Since 2002, Georgia Democrats have lost the governor's office, both U.S. Senate seats, the state Senate and the state House.

Changing the state flag triggered a political neutron bomb. To add insult to injury, the sanctimonious New York Timesman Nicholas Kristof suggested last weekend that changing the Georgia flag was merely symbolic and "didn't help one working mother."

Thanks for sharing, Nick. We'll see how New Yorkers like living under the Confederate flag after four more years of Bush.

Some of the few Georgia Democrats left standing, particularly many liberals and African-Americans, are quietly drawing the long knives to go after party Chairman Bobby Kahn, the lifelong political junkie who was Gov. Roy Barnes' chief of staff and was elected to his party post earlier this year. Kahn wants to keep the unpaid job. His term runs for two more years.

Rap No. 1 against Kahn is his inability to recruit a strong Senate candidate, which doomed Democrats statewide. His critics also are furious because the party repeated mistakes from 2002, like the unsophisticated, haphazard get-out-the-vote effort, while Republicans were boiling out of churches like Saruman's army in Lord of the Rings.

A third problem is Kahn's unholy dependence on television commercials at the expense of all else. The hallmark of Barnes' unsuccessful campaign for re-election two years ago was sappy, Care Bear-style TV commercials that wasted $20 million. By the way, Kahn is in the commercial time-buying business.

But if disgruntled Democrats gut Kahn, who'll take his place? Who would want to? It would be like performing mouth-to-mouth on a crash-test dummy.

Either Kahn or his successor will have an enormous task dead ahead: trying to avoid a ruinous 2006 gubernatorial primary between Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox. With two attractive candidates who have statewide appeal, you might think something could be done to avoid a clash of the titans and further weaken the party. You might be wrong.

Kahn tried and failed to get either to run for the Senate this year. Voters ended up selecting Denise Majette over Cliff Oxford in a primary that had the feel of a kicking match between the halt and the lame.

Barnes argues that Kahn shouldn't be blamed for the 2004 debacle. "It's not his fault," he says of his close friend and former aide. "A party is not independent of candidates. The candidates make the party. Bobby tried to get Mark Taylor and Cathy Cox to run [for the Senate]. The list went on and on. You can't blame him for that."

The larger question, as important as finding the right candidates, is one that Democrats avoided while they were in control of state government: What do they stand for?

One possibility would be to ape the right-wing turncoat Zell Miller. A lurch to the right might work in some rural districts, but it certainly wouldn't work in urban areas and in districts with large black populations.

I was astonished recently to learn how desperate some Democrats have become. A few days before the election, I was driving up I-75, listening to a political commercial for a state Senate candidate on a Middle Georgia radio station. A male announcer who sounded like he was promoting a monster truck rally came on and growled in a gravelly voice with a deep Southern accent: "Pro gun! ... Pro life! ... Anti-gay marriage! ... He's one of us!"

Man, I thought, these Republicans are really over the top.

I later found out the commercial was for the Democrat.

He lost.

But a move to the left would be "disastrous in Georgia," Barnes says.

Majette was perceived as a metro Atlanta liberal. She got just 21 percent of the white vote statewide.

In rural Georgia, the Republican Party's smoothest trick has been persuading doomed working-class voters to storm the polls to ensure that their bosses get richer. Two years ago, rural voters elected Sonny Perdue governor on a racial issue, the flag. This year, they voted against homosexuals in the name of Jesus.

To understand the phenomenon, every Democrat should read What's the Matter with Kansas?, says state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. The book by journalist Thomas Frank explains how Republicans have convinced blue-collar Midwesterners to vote for the interests of Wall Street financiers.

"The Republican Party is nothing but a tool for maintaining corporate wealth in the state and the country," Fort says. "If we don't distinguish ourselves from Republicans, we are going to take the hits we deserve."

Fort isn't naive enough to think the party can win votes in rural areas with a sharp move to the left. But he does think Democrats can somehow reach voters with an authentic economic message. He cites the ability of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards to connect with working-class voters on economic issues.

Yet Kahn points out that Georgia Democrats tried an economic message two years ago and were beaten by a race issue. They tried an economic message this year and were beaten by the religious values issue.

If there is hope, it lies in the monumental capacity for arrogance, hypocrisy and self-destruction that so many Georgia Republicans have manifested over the years. Remember the ruinous affairs of former Attorney General Mike Bowers and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich? And how about last week's dope arrest of a Republican Cherokee County commissioner?

Georgia Republicans, outsiders for generations, are in strange new territory. They are unaccustomed to wielding the kind of sweeping power they have just won, notes former Zell Miller aide Ed Kilgore, now in Washington as policy director for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

"I'm not sure they're going to pull it off real well," says Kilgore.

Praise the Lord.

In 19th-century Atlanta, Humbug Square was the venue of choice for snake-oil salesmen and soapbox orators. Doug Monroe continues that tradition in his column. You can reach him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.

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