This is the second of three exclusive excerpts from Sen. Zell Miller’s new book, “A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat” (Stroud & Hall, Atlanta).The Georgia Democrat, governor from 1991 to 1999, won a special election after the death of Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Republican, in 2000.
Lord, those current presidential candidates in my party.
They are good, smart and able folks, but if I decided to follow any one of them down their road, I’d have to keep my left-turn signal blinking and burning brightly all the way.
All left turns may work on the racetrack, but it is pulling our Democratic Party in a dangerous direction.
Whenever the Democratic candidates encounter a political action committee, they preen and flex their six-pack abs for these special-interest groups, which I call “the Groups,” like bodybuilders in a Mr. Universe contest.
Or perhaps more appropriately I should compare them to streetwalkers in skimpy halters and hot pants, plying their age-old trade for the fat wallets on K Street.
Just look at them. They are convinced most Americans will like what they see:
John Edwards, shooting brightly through the skies like Halley’s Comet.
Joe Lieberman, steadily and surely plodding along, one labored step at a time, like Aesop’s tortoise.
John Kerry, the new century’s Abraham Lincoln, posing for Vogue in an electric-blue wet suit with a surfboard tucked up under his arm like a rail just split. It made me wonder, are there more surfboards or shotguns in America?
There’s also Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont. Clever and glib, but deep this Vermont pond is not. … He likes to say he belongs to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, but I say he belongs to the whining wing of the Democratic Party.
My fellow Senate Democrats are decent, hardworking and smart. They have been friendly and more than fair to me since I arrived in July 2000, even with my rough edges and strong opinions. Let that be underlined: They have been much nicer to me than I have either deserved or expected.
But let this also be clear: I will not be bland in what I write, for I am not blind to what I see. What I saw gradually drew back the curtain on Washington’s political stage, and over time my awe turned to shock.
A partisan prism
I began to refer to the Tuesday luncheon meetings of the Senate’s Democratic caucus as the “Tums-days” lunches, because the ideology moved further and further to the left and the oratory was turned up to a decibel level that got so shrill for my old ears that I needed Tylenol to go along with my antacid.
“The Groups” and money. Money and “the Groups.” It was like a bad song you can’t get out of your mind. Once we were urged over and over to attend a fund-raising breakfast because a big labor union was going to give the party $20,000 for every senator in attendance. All 50 of us answering “present” could mean a million dollars. Of course, I attended.
But I began to think that the Democratic caucus sees the entire nation through the partisan prism of liberal states like California, New York, Maryland and Massachusetts, and believes that what is good Democratic politics there just has to be good Democratic politics from sea to shining sea.
I naturally see the nation through the conservative prism of Georgia and the South, but I would never suggest that what was good Democratic politics in my neck of the woods would play well in Malibu and Manhattan.
When “the Groups” say “frog,” each party jumps. It really doesn’t seem to matter how it affects the people or the nation as a whole. My yardstick says the Democrats clearly win the vertical leap when “frog” is yelled by NARAL Pro-Choice America or by AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) with their 7.4 million members.
If you are organized and have an acronym, an address inside the Beltway and a PAC, you are in like Flynn. Just name your wish, and one of the caucuses will bust a gut to romance you.
If you are only an individual with some rural route address, then forget it, Bubba. The politicians won’t even blow you a kiss, much less romance you.
I was sitting at my beautiful old mahogany desk in the Senate chamber not long after I arrived — a desk that has the names Russell, Talmadge and Nunn carved in it — when Joe Biden of Delaware, a senator for 30 years, came over and sat down.
“I’ve watched a lot of you former governors come up here and invariably you go through three phases,” Biden said. “The first phase is disbelief. You just can’t believe how legislation and decisions are made.”
He was right. I arrived in the middle of the appropriations process, and I could not believe the feeding frenzy.
“The next phase,” he said, “is anger. You stay mad most of the time, and you want to change the system and make it more orderly.”
The third phase, he said, is “acceptance.”
I have not reached that third phase yet. Not even close. I’m still angry because of the petty partisanship on both sides of the aisle. Angry that one single senator representing less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the American people can stop any president — even during wartime — from making a crucial appointment to his own team.
Angry because of the thoughtless, needless waste of taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Angry because soft money — big money — from special interests to both parties controls things in a way that is nothing short of bribery. Angry that this money pays for cynical consultants who sneeringly brag, “We do campaigns; we don’t do government.”
I’m angry at a process in which 59 votes out of 100 cannot pass a bill because 41 votes out of 100 can defeat it. Explain that to Joe Six Pack at the Kmart.
Supporting the president
The process has become so politicized and so polarized and so ingrained that we cannot even put it aside in time of war. It is a system that “Cuisinarts” individual thought into a mushy party pudding, that expects one to go along with the team even if the quarterback is calling the wrong signals.
On the day in July 2000 when Gov. Roy Barnes appointed me to try to fill the big shoes left behind by our friend, Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Republican, I pledged to serve all Georgians and no single party. I took the first step in December, after being elected to the seat.
President-elect George W. Bush invited me and 15 others, including about five other Democrats, to Austin to talk about his education-reform bill. I had already studied the Bush proposal and decided I was for it. I had watched what Bush had done for Texas schools when he and I were both governors. So I stood up at that small luncheon and told him that I would support his bill enthusiastically.
As I was leaving and he was thanking me, I told him: “Mr. President, I’m with you on a lot of things. I’m with you on your tax-cut proposal.” I saw in his eyes that my comment had registered.
A couple of weeks later, Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, mentioned that the president had told him of my comments about the tax cut and asked would I like to join him in co-sponsoring it. I told Gramm I would be honored.
President Bush called me that night in my apartment and thanked me. That was in January 2001. In May, Congress passed a $1.35 trillion tax cut, the largest since the one Ronald Reagan pushed through in 1981. Although I was the only Democrat supporting it for a long time, in the end 12 Democrats voted for it.
Unfortunately, the tax cut was compromised on its way to final passage. What started out as a broad, immediate and permanent cut became one where some relief is delayed by several years. To add insult to injury, the whole thing is set to be repealed in 2010. How can anyone make long-range plans for a business or a family with a tax policy that has a perishable date on it like a quart of milk?
Perhaps because of my experience as a chief executive, I went to Washington believing that a president should be able to select his own team and make out his own batting order. He is the leader and the one who ultimately should and will be held accountable.
My first test came with John Ashcroft, a man I know well. I was the first, and, for a while, the only Democrat publicly supporting his confirmation as attorney general.
A short time later, I was the only Democrat to vote to confirm Ted Olsen as solicitor general. My vote made the difference, 51-49, and the president finally got his own man representing the government before the Supreme Court.
I took that opportunity to tell my colleagues that “this never-ending, back-and-forth, partisan ping-pong game of revenge needs to end — for the good of the country.”
The last straw
With all the support I was giving President Bush, it was only natural that the Senate Republican leadership would make an overture to me to switch parties or become an independent.
As politely as I could, I expressed my long and active history as a Democratic officeholder and how, with me, it didn’t have anything to do with ideology; I was “born a Democrat.” This caused them to take a step back with a strange and puzzled look. No one can understand it except those older folks who live in Appalachia.
When Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party in May 2001 and became an independent, it turned the Senate upside down and gave the Democrats a one-vote majority. Again the Republicans came, and the ante had gone up.
I have no intention now or ever to disclose any details. Suffice it to say that, for a freshman senator, it would have been historic. Again, I politely declined, Tom Daschle became majority leader, and the rest is history.
In fall 2002, in the heat of a campaign season, the Democratic leadership laid on the straw that broke this old camel’s back: the caucus position on homeland security.
The main point of contention was whether any of the 170,000 employees of the new Department of Homeland Security could be moved around by the president in time of national emergency without all the hidebound restrictions of the civil-service system.
Every president before Bush had that kind of authority, but because this was an election year, the labor union wanted to flex its muscle. They found a willing chairman in presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, whose Government Operations Committee had written the homeland-security bill.
The bill was driven by the American Federation of Government Employees and the union’s cock-of-the-walk president, Bobby Harnage, who is always spoiling for a fight. Whether he wins the fight or not, it helps to increase the 37.5 percent of government workers who are unionized.
“We must give the president the flexibility to respond to terrorism on a moment’s notice,” I said in a floor speech Sept. 18, seven weeks before the general election. “He’s got to be able to shift resources, including personnel, at the blink of an eye. So why do we hold so dear a personnel system that was created in 1883 and is as outdated as an ox-cart on an expressway?
“I’ll tell you why: Because by keeping the status quo, there’s votes to be had and soft money to be pocketed. That’s the dirty little secret. …
“Hiring a new federal employee can take five months. Firing a bad worker takes more than a year — if it’s even allowable at all — because of the mountains of paperwork, hearings and appeals. …
“Productivity should be the name of the game. And we lose productivity when bad folks hold on to jobs forever or when jobs go unfilled for months.
“I’ve tried to imagine myself in these workers’ places at this particular time in history,” I concluded. “I’m an old believer in that line by that wonderful Georgia songwriter, Joe South: ‘Before you abuse, criticize or accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.’
“But perhaps it’s because I’ve worked for three dollars a day and was glad to have a job that I find their union bosses’ refusal to budge for the greater good of this country so surprising. Union politics may be important, but it should never come before national security.”
Too far left
A week later I tried again.
“Have we lost our minds?” I asked fellow Democratic senators. “Do you really want to face the voters with this position, this vote writ large on your forehead, like a scarlet letter? … It will be one of our sorriest chapters … where special interests so brazenly trumped national interests.”
On Nov. 5, Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee and decorated Vietnam hero, was defeated in Georgia after dropping eight points in a few weeks. Weeks during which, time and time again — 11 to be exact — the Democratic leadership urged him to vote with those special interests.
In Missouri, Jean Carnahan, a fine senator and widow of my friend, Sen. Mel Carnahan, met the same fate.
Immediately after the election, the homeland-security bill passed with the Democrats not saying the first word about protectionism for employees. It had all been just politics by and for “the Groups.”
Then and there, I decided I would never attend another Democratic caucus lunch on Tums-days. I had seen and heard enough. With the exception of a handful, these Democrats went too far to the left for me.
I could not help remembering John F. Kennedy’s prophetic words about party unity and “what sins have been committed in its name.”
Kennedy warned: “The party which, in its drive for unity, discipline and success, ever decides to exclude new ideas, independent conduct or insurgent members, is in danger.”
Copyright Zell Miller, 2003. All rights reserved. For information, visit zellmillerbook.com