First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Zell Miller Tries to Save the Democratic Party
After Reconstruction, the Democratic Party ruled the South. In election after election, the Democratic presidential candidate could count on all the electoral votes of the old Confederacy.
And because southern legislatures (and, after the 17th Amendment, southern voters) kept reelecting the same Senators, they racked up seniority and ruled many -- sometimes most -- of the committees.
They used this power to block things like the federal anti-lynching bill and, for many years, any other civil rights legislation that might break down the oppression of blacks.
The Democratic Party in the South was grimly determined to keep blacks in their place.
But in the 1960s (and, in a few brave cases, even earlier), some southern Democrats began to break the solidarity of the solid racist South.
One of those Democrats of the New South was Jimmy Carter; another was Zell Miller. And while both of these men had blotches on their record, playing the race card (or hinting at it, at least) in an early campaign, in office their record in favor of equal treatment of blacks was perfect.
Jimmy Carter went on to be governor of Georgia, then President, and finally the most-admired ex-President of our time.
Zell Miller, after being Georgia's "lieutenant governor for life" (or so it seemed), ended his political career as a Democratic governor who balanced Georgia's budget while launching ambitious programs like universal prekindergarten education and college scholarships for every student with a B average.
Miller's credentials as a loyal Democrat are unassailable -- he delivered Georgia to Bill Clinton during the primaries in 1992 at a time when many doubted Clinton's ability to win.
In July 2000, when Georgia's Republican Senator Coverdell suddenly died, the Democratic governor called Zell Miller out of retirement and appointed him to Coverdell's Senate seat, which he won in his own right in the next election.
Though Miller promised to represent all Georgians, not just the Democrats, no one thought this nonpartisanship would extend to the organization of the Senate. And when Republicans tried to woo him into joining the Republican Party in order to get back control of the Senate after Jeffers of Vermont changed coats, Miller politely but firmly declined their most extravagant offers.
He's a Democrat, period.
But, just as many of us have spent the past dozen years as members of the Embarrassed wing of the Democratic Party, Zell Miller finds himself in the frustrating position of belonging to a party that seems grimly determined to destroy either itself or the country -- or maybe, if they can manage it, both.
In his new book A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat, Zell Miller lays it on the line. He has seen how both parties are far too beholden to big-money special interests, but saving the Republican Party from itself isn't his agenda. What he cares about is the way the Democratic Party has thrown away its own conservative wing -- especially in the South, which has been treated with contempt by most Democratic candidates in recent years.
The book isn't just complaint about the current Democratic leadership's ineptitude and ignorance about the South. Senator Miller lays out, by example at least, a program for what a centrist Democratic Party might look like. If his program seems suspiciously similar to President Bush's program, perhaps it's because, contrary to the mythmaking of the extreme Left, Bush is trying just as hard as Miller to move his party toward the center. It's no surprise when they meet there.
Miller believes in compromise, you see -- a dirty word to extremists of any stripe. He believes that in a democracy, nobody should get everything their way. Better to get fifty percent of what you want -- or even, sometimes, sixty or seventy percent -- with compromises that the other side can live with.
Because when you refuse to compromise while you have the upper hand, you invite the other side to refuse to compromise with you when they have the upper hand.
The current Democratic insistence on never bending, not an inch, not on anything, has already created deep resentment -- especially when anti-democratic means are used to prevent any compromise. Miller is a believer in letting the chief executive make the appointments he's legally entitled to make -- the current filibuster to prevent perfectly qualified nominees from taking seats on the judicial bench is, he believes, not just a political mistake, but also flat wrong. And it invites the Republicans to do the same when -- or if -- there is once again a Democrat in the White House.
Miller quotes John F. Kennedy: "Compromise need not mean cowardice. Indeed, it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents."
That quote reminds me of the rage Utah voters have felt toward Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, because he dared to compromise with Democrats in order to get legislation that met at least some of his goals.
As Miller says, half a loaf really is better than none. With half a loaf, you can eat, even if it isn't as much as you hoped for. If you refuse to compromise, you starve.
Miller weighs in on abortion and gun control, too. He began his political career quite readily in favor of abortion. Gradually, he has come to desire reasonable limits; and the more he learned about the development of babies in the womb, the more limits he began to feel were necessary in order to be a decent nation.
He finds it especially ironic that many of those most adamantly in favor of unrestricted abortion are also adamantly against the death penalty. They'll spare the life of every murderer, but not lift a finger to save innocent babies from destruction for no better reason than the convenience of the mother.
A longtime, ardent conservationist -- with a voting record to prove it -- he also gets impatient with extremists among the environmental movement. Miller points out that with modern methods of drilling, tapping into the ANWR oil reserves in Alaska would leave a footprint of less than three square miles on a bleak wasteland -- while making a huge difference in the immediate strategic and economic security of the United States. To him, the refusal to compromise in the interest of the safety of the United States is dangerous and foolish.
He lays out positions on education, gun control, and the arts, but his boldest statements are about our current war on terror. Given what we're hearing from Howard Dean and the other Democratic candidates, It's refreshing to read the words of a Democratic officeholder who says, "an even greater fear for me is that we will become so immersed in partisan sniping we won't prepare" to meet the threat of terrorism. "Seeking political advantage on this issue is like sending engraved invitations to our enemies to attack."
Fundamentally, what sets Miller apart from the Democrats he criticizes is his commitment to -- of all things -- democracy. The idea that instead of a bunch of smart guys trying to remake the whole country in their own image, using anti-democratic means, Miller seems to think that you should persuade the people when you can, vote your conscience when you must, but in all things accept the principle that even the Constitution is binding upon us only because it represents the will of the majority at the time each provision was adopted.
I can imagine this book being seized upon by Republicans -- for partisan advantage, of course -- while being ignored by Democrats, because, to the extremist Left that rules the party, Miller has already been branded a crypto-Republican.
But what I see in this book is the seeds of a new centrist Democratic Party -- a party that can win national elections and deserves to, unlike the party we have now, which sacrifices the national interest for partisan advantage and promotes divisions where it could make rational compromises.
The sad thing is that it will probably take an electoral debacle to sweep out most of the current Democratic Party leadership before any serious change can be made.
America profits when both parties nominate candidates who are interested in compromise, centrism, and good government. That way, even though one party will lose this or that election, the nation as a whole will always win.
But when one party or the other -- or, as sometimes happens, both -- nominate extremist candidates, then no matter which party wins, the nation loses.
Fortunately, the American electorate has a history of slapping down whichever party commits itself to extremism.
But how often before have the national media been so totally committed to advancing the cause of the most extremist wing of one of the parties? What will happen to America if a deceived electorate hands over its safety and its liberty to a party committed to ignoring both national security and the principle of majority rule?
I hope we don't have to find out.
I hope that when the nominating conventions are over next summer, the Democrats will have chosen none of the current slate of candidates, so that in this crucial time in our history, the American people will have two rational choices, not just one, for the Presidency.
Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.
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