When the Senate voted 51 to 50 to provisionally accept the outline of George W.
Bush's budget, the sole Democrat who crossed the aisle was Zell Miller of
Georgia. (He was offset by Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, with Vice
President Dick Cheney breaking the tie.)
Of all the wavering Democrats in the Senate today, Miller is the most
difficult to figure out. Official Washington expected John Breaux to be the
president's favorite Democrat, yet the Louisiana senator has resisted Bush's
tax-cutting entreaties. Democrats may get heartburn when they see a Max Baucus, a
Max Cleland, or a Mary Landrieu hedging bets on some White House initiative; but
these are senators with lukewarm popularity who face heavily pro-Bush electorates
in 18 months, so their reasoning is hardly obscure.
Yet none of this describes or explains the recent behavior of Zell Miller, the
former Georgia governor who left office in 1999 as the most popular governor in
the country. Miller was appointed to the Senate after the death of Paul Coverdell
and won the seat in his own right last November. The still popular Miller can
probably keep the seat as long as he wants it--but people are unsure whether or
not he'll seek another term in 2004. So Democrats have little to threaten or
promise that might bring him back to the party.
No matter how you slice it, Occam's razor provides no parsimonious explanation
for why Miller decided to co-sponsor the Senate's version of the president's
tax-cut package and to buck his party on numerous other fronts over the past two
months. Indeed, that lack of a clear political motive is exactly what has
Democrats so spooked. Miller is known for having sensitive political antennae. If
he came out for Bush's bill, wouldn't other centrists follow? Happily for the
Democrats, no one else has done so. But that only makes the mystery of his
defection more perplexing.
The greatest bewilderment and resentment comes from the coterie of political
consultants Miller drew around him during his 1990 gubernatorial race, most
notably James Carville. Together with Carville and Paul Begala, Miller honed a
political formula that his two campaign advisers would use to pave Bill Clinton's
way to the White House two years later. Begala refused any comment for this
article. But Carville has been merciless and voluble in his criticism. He
publicly asked for and received the return of the $1,000 contribution he gave to
Miller's 2000 campaign. And when I spoke to him in late March, Carville
speculated that Miller's apostasy might be rooted in the work he did for Philip
Morris during his hiatus from elective office in 1999 and 2000.
Miller, on the record, replies, "Those folks are full of shit." He insists
that the now famous political operatives who helped run his 1990 campaign simply
looked at one moment of his 40-year political career and saw what they wanted to
see. "They were just around for the few months of the campaigns," he says. "They
were never around me for the governing."
It's not just Carville and Begala who are puzzled. A host of other close
associates and former staffers are similarly unable to provide any explanation
for Miller's course since last November--at least any explanation rooted in
politics or ideology.One Beltway theory holds that Miller never was much of a
progressive: During his two terms as Georgia's chief executive, he became an
aggressive proponent of welfare reform, a tax cutter, and one of the few
governors who thought three-strikes anticrime legislation was rather too
generous. ("If you want three strikes in Georgia," Miller quipped to reporters,
"you'd better join a baseball team.")
Before his election to the governorship in 1990, Miller had been rattling around
Georgia politics for 30 years, sometimes as a progressive, other times as a
right-winger, but always as a Democrat.He hails from the mountainous northern
part of his state, where Georgia meets North Carolina and Tennessee. He got his
nickname, Zigzag Zell, not only for ideological flux and inconstancy but for a
certain treacherous attitude toward his own political allies that some observers
attribute to his regional heritage.
"His approach has always been to suck a group in," says one longtime Miller
watcher, "and then turn on them at an appropriate time, when there's the widest
possible advantage to him. The unions helped him get elected in 1990. And then he
[immediately] picked a fight with them." Trying to explain Miller's actions, says
another former staffer, "quickly gets [you] into the realm of abnormal
psychology. He's very complicated. There are very few people particularly close
to him. It's that whole mountain thing he has. He's got a limited ability to
Miller's baffling behavior seems to be rooted more in his character and in his
political near-death experience when he almost lost his race for re-election in
1994. A politician of his stripe--a sometime progressive from the South--
survives by staying no more than millimeters in front of or behind the public
mood, and this is no small challenge in a region where crisscrossing pressures of
race and class politics can make political coalitions inherently unstable. But
Miller let himself be firmly identified on the national stage with the new
politics he had helped pioneer in Georgia. He wrapped himself in Bill Clinton in
1991 and 1992 and then made a morally admirable but politically disastrous
decision to try to remove the confederate symbols from the Georgia state flag.
And having gotten out in front with what must have seemed a winning political
message, Miller was left holding the bag as Clinton and his politics became
desperately unpopular in the South in 1993 and 1994. He felt burned. "You've got
a guy who was never terribly enamored with the national party. But that really,
really affected him," says one staffer from that time. "He felt the national
party and Clinton almost took him down. After that, he wasn't going to have a
whole lot to do with them."
Today, Miller is reciprocating. He remains extremely popular in his home
state. Like one of his successful New Democrat predecessors, former Senator Sam
Nunn, Miller has become virtually extra-partisan. His Democratic colleagues in
the Senate are leery about pressing him too hard, because he has little to lose
by shifting parties.
Still, the fact remains that Miller's recent actions aren't politically
necessary. This isn't 1994, and there's not exactly a groundswell of support for
the Bush tax cut,even in the Peach Tree State. And Georgia has actually been a
pretty good state for Democrats during the past two cycles. So why defect to the
To those who say he is simply trying to protect his right flank, Miller can
plausibly point to his titanic popularity in his home state. "I'm 69 years old,"
he says only half-jokingly. "I'm not sure I'll even be around when my right flank
In the end, what drives Miller is less calculation about the ideological mood of
the electorate than it is some deeper-seated determination not to be a captive of
the national party. It is precisely this suspicion of the Democratic Party,
bordering on resentment, that Miller took from his 1994 race. And in a politician
who is intuitive, impulsive, and personal rather than basically ideological,
resentment can color an entire political outlook.
Everything Miller has done since 1994 has echoed a certain "won't get played
again" attitude toward the national Democrats. And as his Democratic colleagues
in the Senate seem to realize, it's a stubbornness and orneriness that will only
become more embedded and extreme the more they try to push him into line. "The
Senate took a little getting used to," Miller recently told me. "But the more I'm
in it, the better I like it. And the more people say that I shouldn't be for what
they're against, the more I am for it. I didn't come here to be a broker.
Breaux's the broker. I let the chips fall where they may. I'm not a maker of
deals. I'm a breaker of deals."