Mark Ribbing

Mark Ribbing

Mark Ribbing's picture
Name: 
Mark Ribbing

Mark Ribbing is the senior communications advisor to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy. Prior to that, he served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus.

A native of Missouri, Ribbing graduated from Yale College and Columbia Law School. He joined The Baltimore Sun in 1997 as a reporter covering the deregulation of the telecom sector and the rapid growth of the Internet.

In April 2001, he became a senior speechwriter for New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Upon the end of Mayor Giuliani's term, Ribbing returned to his original hometown of St. Louis, where he worked for Mayor Francis Slay as a speechwriter and crime-policy aide, becoming involved in the administration's deepening efforts to reform the city's public-school system. He left City Hall to focus on the education-reform issue, serving as startup project manager for a charter school in St. Louis’s North Side.

In 2007, Ribbing joined a Washington think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, as director of policy development. Along with PPI President Will Marshall, Ribbing co-edited the book Memos to the New President, a collection of policy prescriptions written by leading experts in economics, energy, defense, and other fields.

Ribbing’s articles have appeared in several publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, and U.S. News and World Report. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and son.

Interests: 

The political, military, economic, and cultural importance of geography. For an example of how this subject plays out in the U.S. domestic political realm, see the following 2007 piece I wrote for the Democratic Leadership Council's Blueprint Magazine on why Democrats need to stay competitive in the South:

http://www.dlc.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contentid=254267&kaid=127&subid=171

Full text:

Going South
by Mark Ribbing
April 23, 2007

With the 2008 election already on the horizon, Democrats are looking for a strategy that will allow them to win the White House, increase their margins in Congress, and reclaim national majority-party status.

Ideas on how to achieve this will fly thick and fast, but there's one proposal that seems particularly appealing to some Democrats. It can be summed up in three words: Forget the South.

This thesis gained currency after the 2006 election, in which Democrats fared smashingly in every region except the South. It is also the subject of a recent book, Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, by Thomas F. Schaller.

Schaller asserts that the region below the Mason-Dixon Line is "beyond reach for Democrats for the foreseeable future." He cites a four-decade trend toward the GOP at all levels of Southern political life, culminating in a new Solid South, in which every state of the old Confederacy cast its electoral votes for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Not only can't the Democrats win in the Kudzu Belt, writes Schaller; it would be foolhardy to keep trying. Instead of wasting time and money in a vain attempt to win back the most conservative region of the country, the party should lock up its strongholds in the Northeast and Pacific West, while devoting its missionary efforts to the swing states of the Midwest, Rocky Mountains, and Southwest, as well as the Southern outlier state of Florida.

By adding such "purple" states as Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and Arizona to the blue amalgamation won by John Kerry in 2004, insists Schaller, Democrats could craft a sturdy geographic basis for future control of the White House and Congress -- without having to win a single vote in the hostile zone between the Ohio River and the Gulf of Mexico.

It's not hard to see the allure of this plan, especially for Democrats of a more liberal hue. No longer would progressives have to engage in cringe-inducing contortions to make themselves somehow more palatable to Southern voters. No longer would Democratic campaigns have to worry about the cost of drilling for support in soil that is, both literally and politically, red.

Besides, Schaller's proposal has a clean, realpolitik feel to it. He writes, "A national party need not compete and succeed in every corner of the country. A governing majority is precisely that -- a majority, not a unanimous coalition." And sure enough, the 11 states of the former Confederacy account for only 153 electoral votes, well short of the 270 needed to win the White House. Even if one throws in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma -- three states sometimes mentioned in expanded versions of "the South" -- that's still only 173 electoral votes.

In other words, you can win without them. Why not try?

There are many reasons why not, including some that should cut to the core of what it means to be a Democrat, or the member of any party that seeks to govern this nation.

From the standpoint of both philosophy and hard politics, there is something troubling, both undemocratic and un-Democratic, about a campaign strategy that defines itself by exclusion -- in this case, the casting aside of an entire region.

The South is no mere "corner of the country." It is the nation's most populous section, and includes many of our fastest-growing areas -- just think of the sprawling Atlanta region and North Carolina's Research Triangle. Yet rather than seeking inroads into this complex, vital, and increasingly diverse region, Schaller calls for Democrats to actively run against it, invoking the "conservative South" as a bogeyman, much as provincial Republicans bray against the "liberal Northeast."

But there would be a telling difference. Even as Republicans score cheap rhetorical points against coastal elites, they still fight for votes on both seaboards and virtually everywhere in between. That's because Republicans regard their core message -- conservative values, lower taxes, and a muscular approach to security in our streets and around the world -- as a hardy perennial that travels well. With some adjustments for local climate, it can bloom in almost any environment, and the GOP's political botanists won't back down from the challenge. How else to explain why Republican chief executives run New York City and the state of California?

By contrast, many Democrats seem to view their party's message as a fragile orchid, lovely and complex, that would wilt in the Southern heat. However, recent history shows that Democrats can indeed win below the Mason-Dixon Line. Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia all sided with Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996. Georgia joined them in the 1992 election, and Florida did so in 1996.

Presently, Democratic governors hold office in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Sen. Jim Webb's 2006 win against incumbent George Allen in Virginia is an additional sign of Democratic potential in the region.

And yet, in the name of electoral realism, all of these states would be abandoned to the Republicans -- or, in the exceptional case of Florida, would remain a toss-up at best.

Schaller acknowledges, "[G]iving up the South is an awful lot of electoral turf to concede." It sure is. While not capable of winning the presidency by itself, the South constitutes a formidable base. If Republicans can minimize the money they need to spend there, they will be able to devote their considerable financial and organizational advantages to seizing the Midwestern and Western swing states upon which Schaller's strategy depends.

Schaller dismisses this as the "'Keep them honest' fallacy," claiming that efforts to force Republicans to compete in the South will only waste Democratic time and treasure. However, as he notes, Bush's formidable Southern advantage in 2004 did allow Republicans to focus resources elsewhere. This did not turn out well for Democrats, and it's not clear how the perpetuation of this condition, following the Schaller model, could possibly produce better results in the future.

But the problems of the win-without- the-South approach go deeper still. Rather than strengthening Democratic prospects in key swing states, it could very well weaken them.

That's because competing in the South forces the Democratic Party toward the broad middle of American politics and culture. By embracing a strategy that undercuts this discipline, Democrats would alienate many voters whose support they might otherwise win: moderates, disaffected social conservatives, and cash-strapped working people.

The loss of these voters would cost Democrats dearly, as it has in some past elections, in every swing state and perhaps even in blue states with large rural and working-class populations, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

It is hard to imagine a Democratic victory under such circumstances, but it is not hard to imagine the consequences of defeat: The triumph of a Republicanism that links its fortunes ever more closely to the South. This would be a deeply ironic result of the avoid-the-South gambit, but not an implausible one.

Even in victory, Democrats would pay a price for shunning the South. Having waged a campaign of regional exclusion, presumably never really bothering to communicate their message to Southern audiences (after all, that would waste campaign funds), the new Democratic president and Congress would likely inherit a nation even more polarized than it is now. This is not what a governing party needs, particularly at a time when the United States faces severe prospective challenges to its physical security and fiscal health.

Schaller's book contains some undeniable truths. He is absolutely right to identify the West as a region of great opportunity for Democrats. He is also correct in noting that the Democratic Party must spend its resources efficiently. Given a stretch-run choice between spending on a potential victory in Ohio or a noble defeat in Alabama, there is no choice: Send the bucks to the Buckeyes.

But such an easy tactical call must not distract Democrats from the much larger strategic opportunity. The center is now unclaimed by either party. Whichever one seizes it will win in 2008 and beyond.

History shows that, for Democrats, the path to the center leads through the South. It is no coincidence that the only presidential victories the party has won since 1964 have come when it both nominated a Southerner and competed successfully in at least a few Southern states.

This isn't to say that Democrats are eternally obligated to put a Southerner at the top of the ticket. However, they are obligated to craft a strong, optimistic, inclusive message that has national resonance. The party must take this historic opportunity to define itself as the preferred choice of the political center. To do this, it will have to talk to Dixie -- not whistle past it.

Alexandria, VA

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