A main theme of George Bush’s re-election campaign is the notion that it’s Democrats, and not Bush himself, who are responsible for the bitter partisanship in America today. Bush, after all, pledged in 2000 to be “a uniter, not a divider.” So it’s a little awkward for him that the United States is now about as united as an English soccer stadium. Republicans say their party occupies the mainstream, common-sense political center. The real problem, they argue, is that the Democratic Party has been driven left by monomaniacal special interest groups and the wild-eyed likes of Michael Moore, George Soros, and Whoopi Goldberg. Their favorite piece of evidence? Zell Miller.
Miller is a silver-haired Democratic senator from Georgia who has dedicated the twilight of his long career to excoriating his own party. The 72-year-old Miller has become such a heretic, in fact, that he will deliver the keynote address at next week’s Republican convention in New York City. It’s a strange twist of history, given that Miller delivered the keynote address on behalf of Bill Clinton in 1992 (also at Madison Square Garden, as it happens).
But the Miller of old is long gone. Nowadays Miller sounds like some kind of right-wing beat poet. Of Democratic values he says: “If this is a national party, sushi is our national dish. If this is a national party, surfboarding has become our national pastime.” Of John Kerry: “You can’t make a chicken swim, and you can’t make John Kerry anything but an out-of-touch ultraliberal from Taxachussetts.” National Democrats are “being cannibalized, eaten alive by the special-interest groups with their single-issue constituents who care about their own narrow agenda.”
Republicans say Miller’s alienation tells you everything you need to know about the current state of the Democratic Party. Just as Miller’s former Senate colleague, fellow Georgian Max Cleland, is a symbol for Democrats, Miller is a comforting symbol to Republicans of Democratic looniness. According to the Republican story, a decade ago the Democratic Party was centrist enough for a Southern conservative like Miller. But in the Dean-Gore-Pelosi-Sharpton-Kerry era, there’s just no place for a decent man of values. As Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, told USA Today last week, Miller’s New York role is a sign that “the Democratic Party, under this nominee, has moved very far away from the center.”
This argument amounts to a basic truth wrapped in a major fraud. Democrats have tacked left in recent years (though more in tone than in substance). But Zell Miller has moved, too. Far from representing some lonely, abandoned Democratic center, Miller has become a cartoonish GOP partisan.
Democrats are now bitterly resigned to Miller’s treason. But his sudden transformation into a Bush conservative caught them by surprise. A former U.S. Marine, Miller entered Georgia politics in his 20s as a Democratic state senator. He spent 14 years as lieutenant governor before starting the first of two terms as governor in 1991. Miller styled himself as a populist, while governing according to the newly emerging Democratic Leadership Council centrist playbook. He toughened crime laws, reformed welfare, and established a state lottery to fund college scholarships for students who maintained good grades. It’s little surprise, then, that Miller hit it off with like-minded Southern Democrat Clinton, who praised Miller as a “brilliant” governor. Miller used his 1992 Democratic Convention keynote to gleefully zing Republicans as heartless barons. Democrats so loved Miller that James Carville (a former Miller consultant) and Paul Begala wrote a 2000 Washington Monthly article urging Al Gore to choose Miller as his running mate.
The first signs of Miller’s conversion came in July 2000. Miller had left the governor’s office and was settling into retirement when Georgia’s senior Republican senator, Paul Coverdell, died suddenly. The state’s Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, named Miller to fill the seat. After his appointment, Miller issued a declaration of bipartisanship, insisting that he “would serve no single political party, but rather the 7.5 million Georgians.” He quickly backed a big Republican tax cut and only reluctantly admitted his support for Gore’s presidential campaign.
Miller had to survive a special election in his pro-Bush state, so his first rightward feints seemed like smart politics. But after Bush’s inauguration it became clear something more was happening. In January of 2001 Miller leapt forward in support of John Ashcroft’s nomination as attorney general. Soon after, he floored Democrats by co-sponsoring Bush’s tax cut in the Senate. Both moves were invaluable to Bush’s effort to pass his agenda after the bitter Florida recount.
Since then Miller has supported Bush on virtually every major Senate vote: No Child Left Behind, drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, the Patriot Act, the GOP Homeland Security Department plan, the Iraq war, and a partial-birth abortion ban. Two years ago, he stopped caucusing with Democrats and now meets each week with Senate Republicans. More than that, Miller churns out more elaborate anti-liberal invective than most actual Republicans. Earlier this year he published A National Party No More, a long indictment of effete Democratic values and the party’s subservience to groups like NARAL and the trial lawyers. During the Democratic Convention last month, Miller agreed to be a member of a Republican National Committee “truth squad.” And while just three years ago Miller praised John Kerry as “one of this nation’s most authentic heroes, one of this party’s best-known and greatest leaders, and a good friend,” today he belittles Kerry as “so out of touch with the average American it would be comical if it were not so dangerous.”
Democrats have never really come up with a good explanation for Miller’s betrayal. One theory is that Miller is simply blowing with Southern political winds. Democrats once reigned in Deep South states like Georgia, but no longer. In 1990 only three of the region’s 10 Senate seats were held by Republicans. Today that proportion is reversed: three Democrats and seven Republicans—and that’s only if you count Miller as a Democrat. And while the Georgia congressional delegation consisted of nine Democrats and one Republican in 1990; today there are eight Republicans and five Democrats. Miller would hardly be the first Southern Democrat in Congress to react to this trend. Several have switched parties in the past decade, including Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby. What’s curious is that, while other Democrats have changed parties as a matter of electoral survival, Miller has no such motivation: He’s retiring when his term ends in January. And at 72 years old he probably has no future in electoral politics.
It’s also possible that Miller simply feels slighted. Miller is an immensely proud man and acutely sensitive to signs of condescension toward his rural heritage. He grew up in a tiny north Georgia mountain town, and his book is filled with paeans to rural life and such proudly folksy asides as “I own a fiddle that supposedly belonged to Zeb Vance” (a former mountaineer and North Carolina governor in the 1860s). Upon leaving the governorship in 1998 Miller said that one of his greatest regrets was that he never challenged “someone at the Atlanta newspapers to duel over their never-ending bigotry toward rural mountain people.” More than once, he has taken to the Senate floor to launch a tirade against someone for stereotyping “hillbillies”—including one stemwinder aimed at CBS last year for its proposed laugh-at-white-trash reality show, The Real Beverly Hillbillies.
A National Party No More makes it clear Miller sees today’s Democrats as snooty elitists—and he resents them. “The biggest problem with the party leadership is that they know nothing about the modern South,” he writes. “They still see it as a land of magnolias and mint juleps, with the pointy-headed KKK lurking in the background, waiting to burn a cross or lynch blacks and Jews.”
But there has been no long-term Democratic abandonment of the South. Clinton and Gore were both Southerners, and so is John Edwards. The party tends to be far more timid on issues like guns and gay rights than its base would like—precisely for fear of alienating Southern and Midwestern rural voters. It’s the South that has abandoned Democrats, as Republicans take advantage of social issues to win over voters whose economic interests are better aligned with the Democratic Party. In the 1990s Miller warned Democrats not to let the GOP beat them at this game. Today Miller is one of its best practitioners.
So why doesn’t Miller just switch parties? He says that he was born a Democrat and considers his party label “like a birthmark.” More likely he realizes that once he becomes a Republican he stops being interesting. As a Democrat, Miller is an entertaining man-bites-dog story, and a minor celebrity in GOP circles. As a Republican he’s just another partisan hack.