A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat, by Senator Zell Miller (Stroud and Hall, 2003)
If you’re wondering about that sizzling noise coming from Democratic Party headquarters these days, it’s the sound of Democrats trussed on spits revolving over the hot coals of Georgia Senator Zell Miller’s new book, A National Party No more: The Conscience of a Conservative Democratic. The title doesn’t mince words and neither do the words inside. Hell hath no fury like a Democrat betrayed by his party.
Senator Miller recently announced that, having first voted for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and Democrat in twelve cycles since, he cannot “entrust” the party to any of the current nine candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, and instead will be voting for Bush in the 2004 election. Moreover, deciding to support Bush “was the easiest decision I think I’ve ever made.”
A National Party No More is partly autobiographical – a retrospective on a distinguished career and an affirmation of core values and beliefs - but its greater importance lies in its “tough love” analysis of how the tax-cutting, America-first party of John F. Kennedy devolved into a values-neutral coalition in thrall to special interest groups for campaign funding and policy direction. Miller takes the Democratic Party “to the woodshed” because: it has chosen appeasement over virility where homeland security is concerned; it has staggered so far leftward true patriots won’t follow; it opposes tax cuts and strives for more and bigger government; and most worryingly to Miller, it has totally lost the pulse of the entire South, with election losses to prove it. In 2000 Al Gore was only the third Democrat since the Civil War to lose every single southern state in the Old Confederacy, including his home state of Tennessee, which cost him the presidency. Southern alienation from the Democratic party has only deepened since then. In the midterm election of 2002 not a single Democratic leader came to the South without doing more harm than good.
Now a great-grandparent nursing a yen to reconnect with the timeless pleasures of field and stream in his native mountain hamlet of Young Harris in Georgia, Miller is headed for retirement after a long career in politics at every level of government. He is both offended and saddened at what has happened to his party. With a record of high achievement in Georgia State politics as Lt-governor and governor, he has the authority and credibility to speak his mind and know that he will be heard with respect. Miller has felt a sense of great urgency on the subject since 9/11. He believes the Democratic party is at a crossroads similar to that of the Whigs in the 1850s, who disintegrated because of their stubborn partisanship in a time of national crisis.
When Zell Miller got into politics, the Democratic party was still in its ascendancy. The Dems held the House of Representatives for forty years, the Senate and Presidency for most of an era stretching back to WWII. So much has changed. The 2002 midterm made clear that what seemed like a lucky win for Bush in 2000 was rather a trend marker confirming that the Republican wave of 1994 was indeed an incoming tide, and we are presently witnessing the Democratic Party’s “fading birthright” slip into its denouement. Miller does not rule out a total meltdown for the Democrats. At the very least, “[T]he spectre of a generation in the wilderness haunts the Democratic primaries.”
The book is divided into 22 chapters. Most chapters elaborate on an achievement in Miller’s personal political history based on a value that he holds dear, and these are in turn held up for contrast with the (lack of) values, policies and strategies that are undermining today’s Democratic party. Miller doesn’t just talk the talk, in other words.
“It ain’t bragging if you did it.” As Lt-governor and later as governor of his home state of Georgia, for example, Miller proved that you can promote a solid Democratic agenda, still cut taxes (“you would never believe that our party once had that tradition”) and hold the line on spending. Early in his tenure he cut state expenditures by a billion dollars, abolished 5000 state jobs over three years and reduced taxes by 883m. At the same time he established cutting edge early childhood programs, reduced the welfare rolls, and, through his HOPE initiative (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) assured all Georgia B-average-maintaining students of a free college education. Instituting a state lottery provided school construction monies and brought in 625m for technology. Georgia’s salaries for teachers and professors went from seventh to first place in the Southeast.
During the eight years Miller was governor, more than a million new citizens came to Georgia for the average of 2000 jobs per week generated under his stewardship. As well, total personal income increased by 68%, making Georgia sixth in the States for income growth during that time.
On the environmental front Miller extended protected sensitive habitats by 110,000 acres. He curbed and tamed Medicaid costs. An advocate of victims’ rights, he created a victims’ bill of rights, added 20,000 prison beds, ended the early release of prisoners, and – himself a former marine with a great deal of faith in fear-based respect – initiated boot camps for juvenile offenders.
This seems the appropriate juncture to mention that Miller is pro-choice on abortion (but pro stem-cell as well; one can be both), a supporter of the recently passed ban on partial birth abortion, and a hearty advocate of teen pregnancy prevention (including the funding of sexual abstinence programs). One curious near-omission in Miller’s litany of values-based initiatives is gay rights. There is but a single elusive passage in the entire book glossing the Boy Scouts affair and pedophile priests. I am guessing that Mr. Miller simply doesn’t want “to go there” in this book, and I also assume, given his other beliefs, that he is firmly in the anti gay marriage camp. But he may very well support some form of domestic partnership or civil union legislation, and given the certainty that settling this thorny issue looms large on the political horizon, this book would have been the ideal platform for his views.
By 1990 Miller had been in Georgia politics and government for thirty years. In that time he never spent more than $200,000 on a campaign, never hired consultants or pollsters. He was first elected in 1974, then three more times by wide margins. Today’s thriving and competitive Georgia is in large part a reflection of his innovations and economic prudence. Miller has earned the right to identify political failure when he sees it, as well as the right to give advice, and this he does in elegant sufficiency.
The Democratic party’s failure to understand and accommodate the values of the conservative South irritates Miller more than almost anything. In 1972, 1984, 1988, and 2000 the Democratic candidate didn’t carry a single southern state, while in 1968 and 1980, he picked up exactly one. Yet stubbornly, today, as before, the nine candidates are foolishly fixated on winning the hearts and votes of union-member swollen Iowa and values-atypical New Hampshire. “The modern South and rural America are as foreign to our Democratic leaders as some place in Asia or Africa.” Years in the wilderness seem not to have had the slightest impact, he says. When modern Democrats think of the South at all, they see it through anachronistic eyes. Howard Dean’s recent gaffe would be no accident to Miller; he sees that for Democratic leaders it really is all about pickup trucks and confederate flags.
That old South is gone with the wind. Miller points out that the fifteen Southeastern states’ combined economy today would rank directly after the U.S. and Japan. A third of the Fortune 500 companies are headquartered there. In 1990, 565 African Americans held elected office in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy. In 2003 that number skyrocketed to 5,579. The percentage of minority Southerners with college degrees has tripled in the last quarter century. As African Americans move into the middle class, their historic 90% fidelity rate to the Dems can no longer be taken for granted. African American issues clearly go beyond civil rights now, and they are gravitating in ever-larger numbers to conservative positions mirroring those of their white compatriots. But the Democrats have failed to capitalize on – indeed have ignored - all of these facts.
“All left turns may work on the racetrack, but it is pulling our party in a dangerous direction.” Incoming Dems are uniformly liberal; outgoing conservative and moderate Dems are not being replaced. As a senator, Miller attended weekly caucus luncheons in Washington, and they convinced him that the party sees the nation through the liberal prism of California, New York and Massachusetts. His disdain for some of his fellow Democrats can be eyebrow-raisingly caustic. He says, “Whenever the candidates encounter a Political Action Committee group, they preen and flex their six-pack abs…” like bodybuilders, or “perhaps more appropriately I should compare them to streetwalkers…plying their age-old trade”. Joe Lieberman is a “tortoise”, front-runner Howard Dean : “Clever and glib, but deep this Vermont pond is not.”
Miller is contemptuous of the Democrats’ present hypocrisy on race issues. To his credit he is up front and candid about his own onetime failure to step up to the plate on race. In 1964 he knew he would not be elected to congress if he voted for Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights bill. He not only voted against it, he made regrettable statements at the time – “Johnson is a southerner who has sold his birthright for a mess of dark porridge” – that shame and haunt him still. Miller says, though, that he “was a political weakling but not a racist,” and considers the Civil Rights Act to be “the most important legislation in my lifetime.”
Miller is disgusted by the Democrats’ refusal to consider school vouchers for poor black children out of deference to the powerful teachers’ union, and he thinks race-based Affirmative Action, once justifiable as a headstart program to correct legitimate past grievances, should be scrapped in favour of affirmative action based on income. “When I was a young state senator arguing that race should not matter, I was considered a liberal. Now, forty years later, when I’m an old U.S. senator and argue that race should not matter, I’m considered a conservative,” Miller notes ironically.
Miller is at his most eloquent in his anguished disavowal of his party’s tripwire partisanship over the Homeland Security Bill, whose creation Miller supported whole-heartedly. He is an ardent supporter of Bush’s anti-terror campaign domestically and abroad. “If a government can’t keep its citizens safe, it fails.” But the Senate Democrats fought tooth and nail to block the new department in order to appease the federal employees union, on the grounds that they would be subject to arbitrary transfers. Effectively the Dems chose union job protection over national security, as Miller saw it, and this is where, for him, “they crossed a line”. While vote after vote was taken, Miller remained the only Democrat to support President Bush. In a speech on the Senate floor Miller compared the Democrats to an appeasing Chamberlain opposite a courageous Churchill. Miller as good as calls his own party traitorous to a nation in peril. I am sure this particular act of ignominy by his peers was the defining moment in the decision to write this book.
This review has necessarily concentrated on those elements in the Democratic Party’s history and current malaise that provoke Miller’s anger, but the book’s tone is essentially moderate and reasonable, never gratuitously malicious. Miller writes with unadorned, unsentimental clarity and purpose, his American style colored with characteristically Southern rhythms and locutions (Hollywood actors who use their celebrity to vilify the Bush administration are “lower than a snake’s belly”). The clean, pragmatic compartmentalization of issues makes for easy reading. One could wish for more elaboration on the autobiographical side, as Miller’s back story is fascinating. Of particular interest and charm is Miller’s account of his impoverished widowed mother’s determination to overcome Lincolnesque travails in turning a hardscrabble existence to dignified self-sufficiency. I would also have liked more about his happy marriage to Shirley Carver, another strong, high-achieving woman from the same rural mountain roots, and his children and extended family.
I cannot forbear to mention that while the grievance-collecting Democratic candidates are wringing every last drop of victimhood capital from their various childhood deprivations and losses of loved ones in speeches and interviews, Miller chooses to portray his extremely tough childhood circumstances as a catalyst to achievement and public service rather than fodder for reader pity. I think he would be horrified to have people feeling sorry for him, and this attitude as much as anything else illuminates the values chasm between him and his “fellow” Democrats.
A final caveat to readers, and a reproach to publishers Stroud and Hill: In a book so chock a block with statistics and fascinating historical data of all kinds, would it not seem obvious to include an index at the back? I hope they will in the second edition. And in the third and fourth. I have a feeling copies of this book will find themselves under thousands of American Christmas trees this year. Well, at any rate, Senator Miller would call them Christmas trees. I daresay Howard Dean would – in the carefully PC, ostentatiously inclusive, multi-culti Democratic way - call it a “Holiday Tree”. Whatever that means.
Barbara Kay is a columnist for the National Post. To see her archives Click Here.