Miller Blames Leaders for ’02
Frustrated by the partisan gridlock that has marked most of his tenure in the Senate, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) accused his own party leadership of employing delaying tactics last year that led to the defeat of two incumbent Democrats in the 2002 elections.
Miller contends the leadership miscalculated when it refused to allow quick passage of legislation creating a Department of Homeland Security in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, and said that decision eventually cost Democratic Sens. Max Cleland (Ga.) and Jean Carnahan (Mo.) their seats.
“The Democratic leadership in the Senate had put Senator Cleland and Senator Carnahan into an untenable position,” Miller said in a wide ranging interview last week. “When you bring it down to whether you are for homeland security or for protecting federal employees’ jobs, that is pretty hard to defend,” Miller complained, arguing that Democratic leaders forced incumbents “in some places where that didn’t play well” to “vote on that over and over again.”
The question of patriotism was a particularly pronounced theme in the Georgia contest where Republican groups and then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) successfully challenged Cleland’s dedication to homeland security and ousted the one-term Senator.
For many Democratic Senators, a bitter taste remains from the Georgia race, and they privately complain that the GOP and Chambliss unfairly painted a severely wounded Vietnam veteran as unpatriotic.
But Miller said “replaying” the campaign “doesn’t serve any purpose” and added that he works well with Georgia’s new junior Senator.
“Saxby and I have known each other for 30 years,” Miller said. “He is a good, decent man. He made a good Congressman and he is going to make a very, very good Senator.”
Instead, Miller chose to turn the blame back on the Democratic leadership, claiming they put great effort into highlighting how the new department would hurt union workers only to all but drop the subject after the elections.
“It was hard to understand,” Miller said. “I was puzzled why the Democratic leadership insisted on going down that road over and over again and making it such an issue and then after the election was over and those defeats had occurred, then you passed homeland security and you never heard another word of the federal employees’ job protection.”
Some Democrats blame Miller, in part, for Cleland’s defeat, citing Miller’s decisions to support President Bush on issues ranging from tax cuts to homeland security.
“Zell Miller took votes opposite of Senator Cleland and thus exposed Senator Cleland to political potshots from the White House,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.
But a Georgia Democrat scoffed at the suggestion that Miller cost Cleland the election.
“There was not one request that Senator Cleland made of Senator Miller [that he] did not do,” the Democrat said. “Senator Miller bent over backwards for Senator Cleland.”
Growing Old in Georgia
The stinging criticism of his own party leaders is hardly out of character for Miller, who announced last month he would retire from Congress when his term expires in 2004. He is quick to point out, though, that his decision to leave after serving only the unexpired term of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) was made the day he accepted the assignment.
“I have never for a fleeting instance thought about staying and it doesn’t have anything to do with the job,” he said. “I am going to be 71 [on Feb. 24] and the way I look upon this time after three score and 10 is that it is sort of the last gift of life.
“I don’t want to grow older in Washington, D.C. It is a lovely city. I want to grow older in that valley where I spent most of my life and where my family and neighbors are. It is that simple.”
What has not been simple is Miller’s adjustment to a Senate process that allows one Senator to stop a nominee or legislation virtually dead in its tracks. In his short time on Capitol Hill, Miller said that is what has frustrated him the most.
“The process has gone to hell,” Miller said, leaning forward in his chair. “Look, I find it disgraceful that a Senator with a blue slip can anonymously keep someone from advancing or being approved.
“It borders on cowardice,” he said of the procedure some Senators have used to block a president’s judicial nominee from being considered.
And Miller said he finds it equally disturbing that a majority of Senators can be stopped from approving a piece of legislation.
“I find it a slap in the face of democracy, a punch in the nose of democracy that 41 individuals can keep 59 individuals from doing something,” Miller said as he whipped out a business card from his wallet with this paragraph from James Madison’s Federalist Paper #58 typed on the back.
“The fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule. The power would be transferred to the minority.”
“Let me tell you, … James Madison, who wrote the thing, is spinning in his grave right now,” Miller said. “I find it criminal that we waste so much time.”
Miller is one of the three Democrats who support Miguel Estrada, Bush’s nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) has vowed to filibuster the nomination.
Miller predicts Congress will some day pay the price for its ineffectiveness and penchant for satisfying the whims of interest groups and political consultants. He said that at some point American voters are going to “rise up in arms and … run the whole bunch of us out of this place” for failing to deal with issues such as prescription drugs.
“One of these days it is going to dawn on the public just how bad it is and the amusement is then going to turn to anger and something will be done about it,” said Miller.
Surprisingly, the plain-spoken North Georgian said he believes NBC’s new television show about the life of an idealistic Senator might help the American public understand how the Congress operates.
“‘Mr. Sterling’ is going to be able to show better in 10 episodes what Common Cause has failed to do in 20 years,” Miller said. “I guess [former Hill aide] Lawrence O’Donnell wrote it, I don’t know. But whoever is writing it has just about got down how ridiculous this process really is. So I like that.”
Always a Democrat
Ever since Miller started bucking his party leadership, most notably when he became one of the chief sponsors of Bush’s tax-cut plan in 2001, many insiders have predicted that he would eventually leave the Democratic Party. With a rare exception, Miller has adamantly denied these rumors and reiterated the point last week.
“I was born a Democrat, and I know that sounds very strange,” Miller said, pausing before lowering the tone of his voice and then adding, “No I won’t change parties. I am too old.
“It is not about ideology. It is hard to explain. One of these days I am going to try and write something on it and try to explain. Born a Democrat and raised a Democrat.”
Despite retaining his party affiliation, Miller no longer attends weekly meetings of the Democratic Caucus, where strategy is hashed out about how to stop the Republican agenda.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but I just found them …” Miller said as his voice trailed off, “but I don’t.”
Still, Miller said he holds his colleagues in high regard, even if he doesn’t agree with them on every political issue.
“They are good and very smart and very hard working,” he said. “I would not mind having any one of them as a neighbor or as a roommate. They are very, very good people.”
Miller even has a strong affinity for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a lawmaker who has effectively used the same Senate rules and procedures that so irk Miller to his advantage for more than 40 years.
“Maybe we are both Appalachians,” Miller said of his camaraderie with Byrd. “Maybe it is because we both have great respect for [former Sen.] Sam Nunn [D-Ga.] and the other Georgia Senators that he knows I knew well. I don’t know. I have a lot of respect for him, but I don’t always agree with him.”
Unlike many of his Democratic colleagues, Miller is also more than willing to praise Bush, both as a person and for his stewardship of the country. It is a friendship that goes back to the days when they served their respective states as governors and a relationship that is bonded by each man’s love of baseball.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” he said. “The man has got a backbone. He also has got a good heart. A good heart.”
Miller also had kind words for Bush’s top political strategist Karl Rove, who is often criticized by Democrats for urging the president to advance a partisan agenda.
“I welcome somebody who has a sense of history,” said Miller, himself a former history professor. “He is a historian and he knows a lot about history. A great deal of history. I find it comforting that [Bush] has got somebody that close to him that understands history like Karl Rove.”
No Lame Duck
Even though Miller is heading for the door he has pledged not to become a lame duck. But don’t expect to see the Georgia Democrat playing an active role in finding his successor. Miller said he has no plans to campaign or endorse any candidate for that seat, but noted there are several qualified Democrats he thinks could win in 2004.
Miller said he is keeping his head low because in the 2002 campaign he endorsed, taped radio and television spots for and wrote letters on behalf of everyone from the governor all the way down to a friend running for a local county board of education.
“It got out of hand,” Miller said. “It was overdone and frankly the people of Georgia probably got sick of seeing Miller on television, and I don’t blame them.”
Miller has pledged to resign shortly after the 2004 Georgia election is certified in order to give the incoming Senator a leg up in seniority among the new batch of elected freshmen. But Miller said he is not ready to quietly return to the North Georgia woods. In his post-Senate career, Miller said he plans to return to one of his first loves: teaching.
“Not retire,” he said emphatically, “just not seek re-election.”