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Conscientious Objector

Sen. Zell Miller has found his audience.

By 12.10.03

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WASHINGTON -- As retired General and presidential hopeful Wesley Clark furiously builds a time machine to send Howard Dean back to challenge George McGovern from the left for the 1972 Democratic nomination, is it any wonder a good Southern Democrat like Senator Zell Miller is up in arms over the current state of affairs?

Miller's latest, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat (Stroud & Hall, 237 pages, $26), is likely the only book on conservative top 10 lists this year that praises (with reservations) Robert Byrd, Diane Feinstein, and Hillary Clinton. Glance at the book's jacket and you'll see laudatory blurbs from Sean Hannity, Robert Novak, Jack Kemp, and Newt Gingrich.

The reciprocity is real but limited. Miller endorses "traditional families," "hard work," "self-reliance" and the stigmatizing and punishing of "destructive behavior," and commends conservatives for sticking up for these values. But he says, unlike conservatives, more liberal-minded people want to help those down on their luck, foster equal opportunity, and provide "broad access to housing, education, and health care." And again, he breaks with "many of my conservative friends" over whether federal funds should go to funding art classes in schools. The rest of the book more or less follows the same script: Liberals are caring and nurturing to a fault, while conservatives are the stern enforcers of necessary unpleasantries of life.

So why is Jack Kemp happily touting this book as a "wake-up call for the Democratic Party"? What has prompted Robert Novak to proclaim that Democrats "would be well advised" to accept Miller's "sincere advice"?

Obviously, Miller has found many fans in GOP circles for his willingness to co-sponsor legislation endorsed by President Bush, most notably the 2001 tax cut package. His reaction to the September 11 attacks also endeared him to the more hawkish elements. "I say, bomb the hell out of them," Miller said on the Senate floor a day after the attacks. "If there's collateral damage, so be it. They certainly found our civilians to be expendable." This is hardly the apologize-to-the-world-and-we'll-have-peace approach many Democrats have adopted in the War on Terror.

But the current embrace of Miller has little to do with any selfless concern on the part of conservatives. Does anyone believe Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity are hoping the Democrats will reform themselves, so that they can take back Congress? Call me a cynic, but I think most conservatives hope Miller's book is a eulogy, rather than a real call for a Democratic renaissance.

Not that Miller has done much to discourage that interpretation. A man who, in a keynote speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, called Bill Clinton "the only candidate for president who feels our pain, shares our hopes," is now an avowed supporter of George W. Bush. He calls the contenders for his Party's nomination the "nine dwarves" and points out that no national Democratic figure can campaign for candidates in the South without hurting them.

The target audience for A National Party No More is a Republican establishment so buoyed by recent victories they want to believe the entire world has been converted. And it is fun to gloat. But if there is anything that can undo these gains it will be a sense in the public that conservatives believe their victory to be a matter of inevitability.

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