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Political Reform

DLC | Blueprint Magazine | November 20, 2003
Zell Bent
Book Review

By Ed Kilgore

Table of Contents

A NATIONAL PARTY NO MORE: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat
by Zell Miller
Stroud & Hall, 237 pp, $24.95

In the large community of people who have worked for, supported, and admired U.S. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia as a distinguished, long-time stalwart Democratic elected official, the burning question during the last three years has been: "What in God's name is he doing?" From his decision to become an original cosponsor of both of George W. Bush's tax cut bills, through his steady devolution into a reliable Senate vote for Republican legislation generally, Miller has repeatedly stunned old friends in Georgia who know him as the most jaundiced of yellow-dog Southern Democrats.

The estrangement of Miller from his Democratic past has now been completed by his recent endorsement of Bush for re-election, and his publication of a book being widely hailed by Republicans as an obituary for the southern wing of the Democratic Party.

But to long-time Miller-watchers, this book provides a pretty clear explanation of what in God's name Zell has been doing. He doesn't really hate the Democratic Party. He hates the cynical, elitist Washington political culture he's experienced since his appointment to the U.S. Senate in 1999, and which he identifies with the national Democratic Party. The tragedy of A National Party No More is that Miller has let his pique lead him into a tight alliance with the real party of power and elitism in Washington, the GOP.

As Miller's federal-state relations director from 1992 to 1994, I got plenty of exposure to his political skills and policy innovations, especially in education and economic development. But on our trips to Washington, he was a different man: tense, defensive, and eager to leave as soon as possible. In every meeting with a Washington potentate, you could almost see the thought bubble over Miller's head: That sumbitch thinks he's smarter than me. As a fellow cracker with Appalachian roots, I understood the chip he carried on his shoulder in Washington. And that's why I was completely baffled, like many of his Georgia friends, by his decision to accept a Senate appointment.

The disconnect between Miller's careers in Atlanta and in Washington is amply illustrated by this book. The first half is a wonderfully written autobiography of his political career in Georgia. Time after time, he stresses his progressive accomplishments as a state legislator, as a high-ranking staffer in three administrations, as lieutenant governor, and as governor. He regrets, with admirable sincerity, his few, early, politically-driven excursions into political reaction, especially on civil rights. Of an egregious comparison he made of President Lyndon B. Johnson with "a mess of dark porridge," he now writes that "they were the words of ... a political weakling, but not a racist."

The next section of the book lays out Miller's current thinking on a wide range of issues: equal opportunity, education, economics, crime, taxes, abortion, national security, and even the arts and the impact of music on early childhood development. Most of Miller's agenda is vastly more consistent with the New Democrat point of view than with that of his new Republican friends.

Several chapters lash both parties for the characteristic sins of Washington's political culture: campaign financing, subservience to interest groups, unwillingness to compromise, and the Senate rules allowing filibusters to frustrate majority opinion.

Miller makes an occasional, if half-hearted, attempt to claim that Democrats are more culpable than Republicans on these political sins, but most are no more compelling than his assertion that right-wing interest groups are "content to hide under the radar."

And finally, Miller praises the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and of Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 as reflecting the values-focused, commonsense, centrist Democratic Party that he and other southerners can support.

When did Democrats go left and go wrong, according to this account? Basically, when Zell Miller went to Washington. That coincidence suggests that Miller's abandonment of his party was caused more by his reaction to the Beltway culture than by any abandonment of the political center by Democrats.

The main ideological rationales for Miller's lurch toward the GOP in this book involve taxes and national security. Miller says Democrats should not be allergic to tax cuts. Like many Republicans, he cites John F. Kennedy's across-the-board tax reductions (without acknowledging that the top marginal tax rate in Kennedy's day was 75 percent). In supporting Bush's tax agenda, he does not mention that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and several of today's leading Democratic presidential candidates have advocated tax cuts targeted to the middle class and to economically productive business investment. Oddly enough, for a self-proclaimed centrist, Miller's main rationale for a big tax cut echoes the "starve the beast" theory of Republican libertarians: tax cuts indirectly force a smaller government.

But it's on national security, and specifically homeland security, that Miller says Democratic positions represented the "straw that broke the camel's back." In the beginning, middle, and end of the book, he rages about the efforts of Senate Democrats to amend the bill creating a Department of Homeland Security to protect public employee rights. He says that's what beat his Georgia Senate colleague Max Cleland in 2002, and that's why he stopped attending Democratic Caucus meetings. Miller's arguments have merit, but the glaring omission in his account is his failure to acknowledge that the whole idea of a homeland security department was created and advanced by Senate Democrats, against Bush administration opposition, until the president suddenly shifted positions and co-opted the Lieberman-Graham legislation, finally taking credit for the whole enterprise.

That's an example of Miller's bent in the few sections of this book that really justify its title, his apostasy from the Democratic Party, and the lavish praise it receives from the rogue's gallery of Republican politicians and pundits featured in the jacket blurbs and the bookselling campaign. Most of the GOP hacks who may make A National Party No More the latest right-wing bestseller probably have not read the book, do not support much of Miller's own agenda, and are light years away from understanding the hard-scrabble populism that enlivened his political career.

Sadly, Miller's perverse and premature endorsement of Bush, and his adoption by the right-wing media machine, will all but guarantee that few if any Democrats will pay attention to the nuggets of sound advice he offers his party. Most of the book simply warns Democrats that they cannot remain competitive in the South if they abandon traditional party commitments to mainstream cultural views and to the economic aspirations of the middle class. He repeatedly praises the Democratic Leadership Council for offering the right advice to Democrats, even as he endorses Bush administration positions on economic, fiscal, and foreign policies that the DLC consistently opposes. At a time when centrist Democrats are fighting insidious claims that its positions are no more than Bush Lite, Miller offers Bush Heavy as an alternative.

It didn't have to be that way, had this Appalachian version of Mr. Smith refused an appointment to come to Washington. In the first chapter of A National Party No More, Miller compares himself to Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith, and sadly says: "What I discovered in Washington was truth, and truth did not set me free. It simply made me mad."

That's vintage Zell, but he's got it backward: He came to Washington and got mad, and his anger has bent him against the real truth, and driven him into the arms of people with little but contempt for his old-fashioned Democratic values.

Ed Kilgore is policy director of the DLC and a senior editor of Blueprint.