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Jeffords, Miller, Carville and the Democratic Party


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2001

This is a tale of two U.S. senators -- James Jeffords of Vermont and Zell Miller of Georgia. Inside the Washington Beltway, the former is a saint, the latter a sinner.

This is a tale of two U.S. senators -- James Jeffords of Vermont and Zell Miller of Georgia. Inside the Washington Beltway, the former is a saint, the latter a sinner.

Jeffords' defection from the Republican Party is being celebrated by Democrats and pundits as a courageous and principled political act. The Vermont senator, who now calls himself an independent, has won hosannas over the years for refusing to toe the GOP party line and for voting with Democrats more times than not. Now that his party switch has restored Democratic control in the Senate, his admirers are prostrate. Maybe they will try to name a Washington airport for him.

The Washington political and press establishments, however, don't know what to make of Miller, a 69-year-old former college professor and two-term governor who loves country music and reveres FDR. Much to the dismay of some Democrats, Miller has proved to be one of President Bush's most reliable votes on controversial issues. He was the first Senate Democrat to announce his support for Bush's $1.6-trillion tax cut plan, the first to endorse John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general and one of the few Democrats who voted for Theodore Olson's nomination as solicitor general.

His critics refuse to even consider the possibility that Miller's votes were just as principled as Jeffords'. About the kindest thing you will hear Beltway Democrats say about Miller is that he is a maverick. What they say behind his back is something else. The only restraint on the vilification of Zell Miller, a centrist politician known for his independent streak, is that Democrats don't want to risk his defection.

I've known and respected Zell Miller for almost 40 years. I even worked as a volunteer in his unsuccessful 1964 congressional campaign in Georgia. I disagree with some of his Senate votes, but I don't doubt for one minute that his votes are principled. Miller is many things that Washington will never understand, but he is not a Republican. So Democrats can relax -- Zell Miller is not going to pull a Jeffords, even though he feels the chill in his own party. That chill extends even to Miller's long-time supporters and friends in Atlanta's black community. Miller was twice elected governor with the solid backing of black voters and organized labor. Now they're taking their shots.

No one, however, has gone has far as James Carville, the trash-talking Democratic consultant who recently asked Miller to refund his $1,000 contribution to last year's Senate campaign. Miller obliged, and the two, once close friends, haven't spoken since.

Of Carville, Miller recently told the New York Times: "I couldn't imagine him doing anything that would have driven a wedge in our friendship. But when you ask for your money back after you've paid the man hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years, that kind of gets you."

Miller employed Carville and Paul Begala as consultants in his successful 1990 campaign for governor of Georgia. Two years later, it was Miller who recommended the pair to Bill Clinton, who was planning his underdog presidential bid. Clinton's strategy took a page from Miller's campaign book. Speaking at a gathering of Southern Democrats in Raleigh in 1991, Miller said: "We (Democrats) have chosen to fight on social issues rather than to run on the economic issues that shape the daily lives of American families. When the average American family stays up late into the night, they are not worrying about whether school prayer should be voluntary or mandatory. They are worrying about how to balance the checkbook or whether they will find money for Junior's college education."

Carville distilled Miller's message into what became the mantra of the Clinton campaign -- "It's the economy, stupid." Miller was given the honor of nominating Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in 1992, and his populist speech, delivered in his mountain twang, evoked the best of the New Deal liberalism and brought the cheering delegates to their feet. For that moment, Miller spoke in perfect pitch and stood in perfect harmony with his party.

Those were the days when Miller was seen as a rising star in Democratic politics. His loyalty was never in question. He actively supported the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Miller was considered one of the nation's most progressive Democratic governors, and many Democrats regarded Miller as a political guide who could help their presidential candidate strike the right balance between social and economic issues, just as Miller had done so successfully in his own campaigns.

As a candidate for governor, Miller said in his Raleigh speech, "I was open about where I stood on social issues. I said I was for sex education, and now we are implementing it. I endorsed a hate crimes bill, and I have said that I would sign legislation repealing Georgia's anti-sodomy law. I am completely committed to a woman's right to choose, and I have never equivocated in my support of the E.R.A. . . . But you see, those issues were not the sole message of my campaign. Most of all, I stood for economic empowerment -- for education, for efficiency, and, instead of higher taxes, for a lottery (to finance college scholarships and universal pre-kindergarten)."

And, he could have added, for tax cuts.

When Miller came to the Senate, he put his fellow Democrats on notice. He was not there to vote the party line but to represent the interests of Georgians. And for that, he is paying a price. Miller is not the first Democrat to be judged so narrowly. There was no truer New Deal liberal than the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. Throughout his political life he stood up for working people and the disadvantaged. But he was out of step with his party on abortion. Casey opposed abortion, and for that he was shamefully ostracized by his party and even denied a speaking slot at the 1992 and 1996 Democratic conventions.

I doubt that you'll see Zell Miller's name on the roster of speakers at his party's 2004 national convention. But I won't at all be surprised if James Jeffords gets a prime-time speaking slot.

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