Representing Only Themselves

Any time in these highly polarized days progressives talk about the conservative writers and thinkers they respect (not something conservatives often reciprocate), the name of Reihan Salam almost always comes up. Co-author (with Ross Douthat) of Grand New Party, a 2008 blueprint for a working-class-friendlier Republican Party that manifestly failed to appear, Salam often writes about subjects (like congestion pricing) in which I am not deeply interested. So while I have a generally favorable feeling about the guy, who clearly is not part of the hammer-headed tribe of conservative writers who’d be happy with one-party government, I don’t often notice his writing.

All this is prologue to a negative assessment of a Reuters column he published earlier this week on a subject I do happen to know a lot about: the significance of high profile party-switchers, specifically Zell Miller (vengeful star of the 2004 GOP Convention) and Artur Davis (who got lower billing this year). As some of you know, I worked for Zell Miller in Georgia (long before his apostasy) and with Artur Davis when I was at the DLC.

I don’t recognize them much in this account from Salam, who thinks they were both highly representative of contemporary or future voting blocs on the move. Get this:

Having once been the centrist Democrat par excellence, practically inventing Bill Clinton’s Third Way playbook, Miller let loose a torrent of rage at Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry that delighted rock-ribbed conservatives everywhere — and may well have frightened small children.

While I won’t dispute this characterization of Miller’s wild and largely inexplicable fury in 2004, and do agree he was earlier a highly partisan Democrat, sorry, he didn’t invent Bill Clinton’s playbook. When I worked for him from 1992 to 1994, our staff was required to check into what the state of Arkansas was doing on every conceivable policy issue. Miller’s main political contribution to “centrist Democrats” was his demonstration that white suburban voters in the mid-1990s didn’t let their affinity for anti-government rhetoric trump their interest in better public education, which was Zell’s hedgehog-like interest. Indeed, Miller’s version of the “Third Way” was to spend all his time on education policy and then move as far and as rapidly to the right as he could on everything else (which is how, when running for re-election in 1994, he wound up championing “two strikes and you’re out,” a genuinely stupid crime policy idea). If anything, Miller was the kind of guy DLCers (whom I joined after leaving Zell’s employ) pointed to as a cautionary tale of someone who didn’t quite “get it.”

There are various theories down in Georgia about Zell’s eventual leap out of the Democratic Party, many of which go pretty deeply into Appalachian character stereotypes and even abnormal psychology. But the realignment of southern whites into the Republican Party had pretty much already run its course by the time Miller decided to go after John Kerry in 2004. Two years later, he was up in Pennsylvania presiding over the launch of something called “Democrats for Santorum,” which led me to conclude that he was finally, typically, speaking for no one but himself.

And a similar conclusion is even more obvious for former Rep. Artur Davis, who is described by Salam as a “stand-in for a kind of upwardly mobile, aspirational voter you’ll find in many American communities.” You know, the kind who hoped Barack Obama would be a nice, bipartisan president who wouldn’t do anything shocking like trying to implement his 2008 campaign platform. The problem with Davis as the symbol of former supporters “abandoned” by Obama is that the former had no problems with the latter until he decided to run for Governor of Alabama in 2010. He chose the plausible (for that very red state) but risky strategy of running away from Obama, and from most organized groups of Alabama Democrats, as quickly as his legs would carry him, on the theory the the party “base” would have no where else to go. It failed spectacularly when Alabama African-Americans overwhelmingly voted in a Democratic primary for a white candidate with his own moderate credentials who did not choose to boast of his independence of them. Within days of his defeat, he abandoned Alabama, and soon abandoned the Democratic Party, choosing greener pastures for his career in the northern suburbs of Virginia. As with Zell Miller, Davis was entirely self-isolated.

I don’t fault Republicans for taking advantage of the desire of either politician to settle obscure old scores or reposition themselves among people they used to despise. But let’s don’t make too much of this, okay? Miller and Davis chose the path of mutual exploitation with the GOP, and I would hope that is not heavily representative of any large group of Americans.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.