For whom Zell tolls

A National Party No More would be a bit easier to discuss if it was entirely a bad book. But it’s not. The first quarter or so, which describes Miller’s childhood and his rise in Georgia politics, is really interesting. Talk about retail politics: Here’s how Miller, then a college professor, first ran for the Georgia State Senate in 1960 at age 28: “I got up before daybreak to visit the early-rising mountain families around Owl Creek, Gum Log, Scataway, Bugscuffle, Bearmeat and the other isolated communities throughout the county. I’d be back at the college by nine o’clock to teach my first class. There was an old custom that if you woke up a man at night, it would emphasize to him just how important you thought his vote was. I woke up dozens. I’d always carry a gun on those excursions because feelings ran high and I traveled alone often on dark, lonely, dirt-rutted roads.”

But A National Party No More is in most ways a bad book–indeed, a rather dreadful one. Most of the chapters are a toxic combination of corny folkisms, over-the-top jeremiads against fellow Democrats, and wonky recountings of Miller’s policy innovations and accomplishments. That makes for some pretty tough slogging, especially given Miller’s disjointed prose style, which piles one story or observation on top of another, without a clear narrative structure.

So who would slog through it? Well, probably some of Miller’s new-found conservative friends, who would find his observation that “I could probably count on one hand those [environmentalists] in Washington who are real outdoorsmen, the ones who would know the difference between a pine and a poplar, the ones who have, excuse me, ever ‘pee’d’ in the woods” a trenchant critique of the environmentalist movement. (One expects that the five leading conservatives who provided dust-jacket blurbs–Sean Hannity, Jack Kemp, Lawrence Kudlow, Newt Gingrich, and Robert Novak–also gave it the old college try.) Who else? Perhaps those among the party he still nominally belongs to who wish to figure how on earth he became the GOP’s cat’s-paw in the Democratic Party. Back in 1992, after all, Miller was a moderate Southern Democrat who declared, in a keynote speech at that summer’s Democratic convention, that Bill Clinton was “the only candidate for president who feels our pain, shares our hopes.” Despite a near-loss during the disastrous 1994 elections, he came back to become one of the most popular governors in the country. When he left Georgia’s gubernatorial mansion in 1999, Miller’s record included both tax cuts and a widely-lauded college scholarship program. But these days, he can’t find any reason to support the Democratic Party no matter what–and can’t find any reason to criticize the GOP, no matter how outrageous its behavior.

This pattern emerges in full force in chapter 6, “But Not This Kind of Democrat.” Here, he blasts his party for being beholden to “money and the [interest] groups,” especially the dreaded labor unions (who backed Miller for governor in 1990), but has nothing to say about Republican ties to business-oriented special interests and business money. Miller is angry that Democrats tried to stop Bush from making some of his appointments because every president “should be able to select his own team,” but makes no mention of the GOP’s extraordinary efforts to block Clinton’s executive and judicial appointments. He is particularly steamed that the Democrats held up President Bush’s Homeland Security bill because of concerns about civil service protections, and not at all concerned that the idea was originally proposed by Democrats only to be blocked for months by Republicans in Congress. (He also mentions in passing that Max Cleland lost his Georgia Senate seat in large part because of political fallout from the congressional fight over the bill, but doesn’t mention the truly appalling manner in which the GOP attacked Cleland in that campaign, shamelessly linking the triple-amputee war veteran to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.) Finally, he quotes JFK on the dangers of “party unity” and “what has been committed in its name,” noting Kennedy’s warning that “the party which in its drive for unity, discipline and success decides to exclude new ideas, independent conduct or insurgent members is in danger.” Amazingly, he applies this concept to the heterogeneous and not-terribly-united-Democrats rather than the rigidly ideological and disciplined Republicans.

So what keeps Miller a Democrat, you might ask? Not a great deal, as evidenced by his chapter on–shudder–taxes, “Return to Sender,” which rehearses an entire litany of conservative clichs on the subject. This is a chapter anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, he of the “starve the beast” school of good government, would have been proud to put his name on. For Miller, tax cuts are always good. (“I’ve never seen one too big for me to swallow without water.”) It doesn’t matter if the rich get most of the tax cuts–after all, the rich pay most of the taxes! If the tax cuts drastically cut the amount of money which government can spend on programs, well, that’s fine, since government would just waste the money anyway. Government is always inefficient and corporations are always efficient–anyone remember Enron?–so the more money we give to business the better. Besides, Jack Kennedy cut taxes.

Oddly, Miller seems quite committed to big programs in education, especially universal pre-school and universal access to college, two policies to which he attached his name as a governor in Georgia. But he’s indifferent to the fact that starving the government of money for things you don’t like also starves it of revenue for the programs you do like. And given that President Bush can’t seem to find the dough to fund his own education reform, it’s remarkable that he is so confident that his GOP friends will have the appetite for two huge new entitlement programs.

But why should they worry about what Miller wants anyway? He’s a cheap date. He’s already convinced, for example, that George W. Bush is today’s Winston Churchill, holding the line against terror, while Democratic “demagogues” (his word) get in the way of the war effort. Given those views, it doesn’t sound like Republicans will need to worry much about Miller’s preferences in areas like education. He’s likely to support them no matter what they do. And the Democrats shouldn’t worry about what he says either; if they followed his advice and became the second anti-government, pro-war party, they’d not only lose the South; they’d lose the rest of the country, too.

If Miller’s path is the wrong one, how should the Democrats move forward, starting with the 2004 election and the chance to regain the presidency? That’s where Greenberg’s book comes in. According to Greenberg, the time is right to move beyond a critique of specific Bush policies to “mount[ing] an assault” on “the entire Reagan project–the idea that tax cuts for the wealthy and enriching the few, and pro-market and corporate policies are really the best way to bring prosperity to the country as a whole.” For Greenberg, this means that the Democrats need their own project: dedication to a opportunity-oriented society “where all share in America’s bounty,” the vision which he believes animated the Democrats of Kennedy’s day. These new “opportunity Democrats” or “JFK Democrats,” to use Greenberg’s buzzwords, can build on the Democrats’ strength in their core groups and win over significant sections of swing groups to whom these themes are attractive, thereby breaking the current political deadlock.

This sounds good, if familiar. (Greenberg had similar advice for candidate Clinton in 1992.) And I’d certainly take Greenberg’s Kennedy over Miller’s Kennedy any day of the week. But how does Greenberg know his approach is the right one? That’s both the strength and the weakness of the book. Where Miller favored folk wisdom and personal anecdotes, Greenberg offers a meticulous analysis of polling data, particularly those collected by his firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, for an effort called Democracy Corps. These data serve a special purpose for Greenberg, because he can combine a large number of surveys taken between Sept. 11, 2001 and May 2003, creating a massive database of some 15,000 interviews. This allows him to subdivide the electorate into some 22 different electoral groups, without producing groups with ridiculously small numbers of respondents–a common problem in survey research.

It’s not always easy to keep track of the different groups, especially since they tend to overlap quite a bit. (“Golden Girls” are white women over 65, while “Aging Female Blues” are white women over 50 without a college degree; the “Young and Restless,” who are whites under 30, can also be “F-You Boys,” white, married men under 50 without a college degree). But, if you can put up with that, and with the cutesy names Greenberg insists on giving them, one finds hugely valuable material.

To my mind, Greenberg’s analysis of these groups, particularly of the nine groups he places in the “contested political world” (a.k.a. swing voters), establishes a couple of important things. First, he shows convincingly that more traditional Democratic strategies, which range from the “base mobilization” of labor-oriented Democrats to the anti-corporate orientation of populist Democrats to the “reassuring-swing-voters-we’re-not-crazy” approach of New Democrats, are unlikely to reach enough voters in these contested groups to create a durable Democratic majority. Second, he demonstrates that the general “opportunity Democrat” themes are, in fact, more attractive and exciting to these swing groups than the traditional approaches.

That’s pretty good for one book. Combined with the raw material on the electoral groups, this makes it an invaluable work for those trying to think through where the Democrats should go next. And there’s still plenty of thinking left to be done. Most obviously, it’s hard to get from Greenberg’s polling data to a sense of what the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates would be doing differently if they were following his advice today. Greenberg does provide a list of policy ideas he believes would encapsulate his opportunity approach–from a “family opportunity and security plan” to a “100 percent education opportunity”–but they just don’t differ that much from the policies these candidates are currently advocating. What’s really needed is the “killer app,” so to speak, of being a JFK Democrat. Greenberg doesn’t provide that answer and Miller’s, of course, is to become a Republican. The floor is open for suggestions.

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. His latest book, with John Judis, is The Emerging Democratic Majority, which is reissued in paperback this January.

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. His latest book, with John Judis, is The Emerging Democratic Majority, which is reissued in paperback this January.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation