A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat
by Zell Miller
Stroud & Hall. 237 pp. $26.00
Last October, long before it was clear who would receive the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Zell Miller, Democrat from Georgia, made waves by endorsing President Bush’s reelection bid. “This does not mean I am going to become a Republican,” he said. “It simply means that in the year 2004, this Democrat will vote for George Bush.”
But when “this Democrat” has co-sponsored the administration’s tax cuts, attacked his party’s filibusters of Bush’s judicial nominees, opposed abortion, wholeheartedly supported the Iraq war, and written a best-selling book (this one) featuring dust-jacket blurbs from such right-wing stalwarts as Robert Novak, Jack Kemp, and Newt Gingrich, it is legitimate to wonder precisely what makes him a Democrat at all.
One answer lies in Miller’s past: “I was born a Democrat. . . . To change would be like walking on my mother’s grave.” Miller’s father died in 1932, two weeks after Zell was born; he was raised by his mother in the town of Young Harris, Georgia, population 300. After junior college and a stint in the Marines, Miller began his political ascent: a member of the county’s Democratic executive committee at twenty-six while earning a graduate degree in history; mayor of Young Harris at twenty-six; a state senator at twenty-eight; followed by election to the office of lieutenant governor and then governor; followed by appointment to the U.S. Senate upon the death of Paul Coverdell in 2000. Miller, now seventy-one, has announced he will not run for reelection when his term ends in 2005.
As governor, Miller was immensely popular. He balanced Georgia’s budget while cutting taxes. He reformed the state’s welfare system, clamping down on Medicaid fraud, slashing the welfare rolls in half, and saving millions for his state. He increased the state’s prison capacity and implemented a “two-strikes-and-you’re-out” policy for violent felons. He funded educational programs with lottery receipts, increasing teacher salaries, creating adult-literacy programs, and introducing “HOPE” scholarships that enable any student graduating from a Georgia public or private high school with at least a B average to receive free tuition plus a book allowance to attend any public college in the state (those attending in-state private institutions receive $3,000 per year).
After singing the praises of his own record, Miller spends the remainder of A National Party No More talking about the issues near to his heart, on which his stances mostly come straight out of the Republican playbook Addressing his party’s use of the filibuster to block some of President Bush’s judicial nominations, he complains that it “hijacks the democratic process.” He argues against our national “orgy of taxation.” He laments abortion and even expresses his hope that “someday Roe v. Wade will be reversed.” He waxes lyrical about the cultural value of guns and hunting, and scorns those who would take guns from law-abiding citizens. He supports the war on terrorism and the war on Iraq. He finds the idea of amnesty for illegal aliens absurd, and calls for their immediate deportation. And he favors broad reform of the criminal-justice system, arguing for the death penalty and decrying the fact that “criminals have more than two-dozen rights under the Constitution and crime victims have zero.”
Unsurprisingly, in light of these views, Miller also spends a great deal of time taking his fellow Democrats to task. He believes that, in their choice of issues, their intolerance of disagreement, and their surrender of policy decisions to liberal special-interest groups, Democratic leaders have told the South to “go to hell.” Indeed, a “values gap” has opened between the Democratic leadership and the South; as a result, the Democrats are no longer a national party, and they are doomed to a slow death.
Or perhaps, this coming November, a fast death. Miller reserves his choicest vitriol for the current crop of Democratic presidential contenders—“streetwalkers in skimpy halters and hot pants plying their age-old trade for the fat wallets on ‘K’ Street.” Chief among the targets of his ire is Howard Dean, who “belongs to the whining wing of the Democratic Party.”
As political books go, this one is a mixed bag. The autobiographical passages hold some interest: gaining an acquaintanceship with “mountain logic” or “small-town pragmatism”—the words used by Miller to describe his political philosophy—is certainly useful for anyone aspiring to understand the political currents flowing through the American South. Equally valuable to the same end are Miller’s reflections on his own political evolution, including his much-regretted opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he says has “tormented [him] ever since.”
And Miller’s political analysis is often perceptive: he is surely right that a deep cultural divide has opened up between the South and the Democratic party, especially the party’s ascendant left wing. And he is also right that the South is slipping further and further from the Democrats’ grasp.
But as in many political books, the author of this one cannot decide whether he wants to be erudite or folksy: a reader could get whiplash moving back and forth between quotations from Albert Einstein and Willie Nelson, Omar Khayyam and Tammy Wynette. There are also errors, petty and grand. One might forgive Miller for misspelling the occasional name (Tom Harkin and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to take two examples). But a sitting U.S. Senator with degrees in history and political science should not misstate the number of constitutional amendments (there are 27, not 22) or misquote the Declaration of Independence (the signers pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” not “our lives, future, and sacred honor”).
In the end, however, the book’s largest failure is its inability to explain why exactly Zell Miller remains a Democrat. As he notes repeatedly throughout, he is significantly to the Right of the party, and not just on a few issues but on almost all of them. In fact, even if as recently as a decade ago it would have been possible to find Democrats of national stature as conservative or almost as conservative as he, today one cannot name any.
This is not just a matter of idle curiosity; it has real political ramifications. In 2001, after James Jeffords of Vermont defected from Republican ranks, control of the Senate switched from the GOP to the Democrats. Had Miller defected in turn, control would have shifted back, and the agenda for which he argues so passionately would have stood a better chance of being enacted.
So why did he not make the switch? Was it because he was “born a Democrat,” and changing parties would be “like walking on my mother’s grave”? If so, then what is he doing endorsing President Bush? A Montague cannot become a Capulet—but he can side with the Capulets in a fight against the Montagues?
Perhaps the simple if slightly cynical answer is that if Zell Miller were a Republican, he would not stand out. As practically the only remaining conservative Democrat, he is the odd man out, ardently courted by the Republican Senate leadership and President Bush when they need his vote, and sufficiently in the limelight to be in a position to write a best-selling book. And that may be the saddest comment of all on what has become of the Democratic party in our time.