Atlanta — When Georgia Democrats examine the events that led to their unexpected historic defeat in the 2002 elections they’ll be tempted to take the easy way out and blame it all on Governor Barnes changing the flag. While there are plenty of good old boys who like to hunt, fish, and collect thick volumes about General Lee and Stonewall Jackson, there probably aren’t enough to change the whole direction of Georgia politics. If the only lesson the Democrats learn from their election debacle is that country boys love the old flag, they’ll make the same mistakes and move further down the road to second party status.
Governor Roy Barnes was a rising star in American politics. His policies were unmistakably centrist. The Barnes administration tackled education reform without showing the usual Democratic party deference to the teachers’ unions, joined conservatives in going after video poker operators, and made moves to reduce property taxes. Even changing the flag was a goal moderate Georgians tended to support. So why the antipathy? How does a Governor with that record end up on the sidelines after a single term?
The answer reveals the complexity of Barnes’ character. While he governed like a centrist, he played politics like a hot-blooded partisan. Barnes had no problem plowing through obstacles to get power and use it. When state constitutional offices didn’t suit his plans, he created new organizations and acted as though elected office-holders were irrelevant. When demographic trends showed Republicans would almost inevitably make gains in the legislature, he personally supervised the worst episode of gerrymandering in the country. Along the way, he didn’t mind stinging Republican legislators who risked their seats to stand with him on the flag. A Governor who works that way creates a lot of enemies. The resentment created by Barnes’ “win at any cost” strategy proved to be the deciding factor in his defeat.
Threatened by a ruthless enemy, the previously hapless state Republican party rallied under the leadership of state chairman Ralph Reed and Governor-elect Sonny Perdue to replace Barnes and defeat Democrats running in several “made to order” districts. The Republicans deserve credit for doing the impossible, but without Barnes’ overreaching ambition doing him in, he’d be headed for a second term and a spot on the next Democratic presidential ticket.
Governor Barnes can’t take all the credit for the setback suffered by Georgia Democrats. Senator Cleland, who lost his race by a larger margin than Barnes, created a massive conservative groundswell determined to defeat him by virtue of his liberal voting record.
Cleland did what he could to hurt himself by opposing President Bush’s Homeland Security bill. That kind of thing might play well in Massachusetts, but it goes over like manure on the boots at Sunday dinner here in the Peach state. Perhaps more importantly, Cleland voted against banning partial birth abortions. He’ll have a plaque on the wall at Planned Parenthood headquarters for the rest of his days, but he couldn’t have chosen a better way to mobilize religious voters against him. Even members of churches who normally find politics too dirty to merit their participation felt obliged to visit the polls and register their disapproval.
The final deadly strike at Cleland’s hopes arrived in the form of one Zell Miller, the last great conservative southern Democrat still standing. When Zell replaced Senator Paul Coverdell after his early death, he wasted no time expressing his irritation with his fellow Democrats. He castigated them for being against tax cuts. He accused them of stupidity and cowardice for failing to fully support President Bush’s war on terrorism. In short, he made himself a high profile pain in the Democratic posterior. All this, while being the most popular politician in Georgia. The problem for Cleland was that his voting philosophy bore little resemblance to that of the outspoken Miller, who was busy doing his best impersonation of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
No matter how many campaign commercials Zell made for Max, it was painfully obvious that Cleland’s Republican challenger Saxby Chambliss was more truly cast in the Miller mold. By the time Miller taped his second round of commercials trying to make it clear he supported Cleland, voters were beginning to wonder whether the two had taken some blood oath as children that Miller was being forced to fulfill with his support. Come election night, Max Cleland joined Wyche Fowler as one-term Democrat Senators who took their cues from the national party rather than Georgia voters.
Now that the dust has cleared and the Republicans have their hands on the Georgia Governor’s mansion and the state Senate in addition to holding on to their Congressional advantage, the state’s politics will never be the same. The defeat of Tom Murphy, the longest serving Speaker of the House in the nation, symbolized the passing of Georgia’s old life as a one party state. The door jimmied loose by the barrel-chested cowboy Cold Warrior Reagan has now swung open wide. The state of Georgia is officially in play.
Finally winning a big one doesn’t add up to a life of ease for Republicans, though. They made a major issue of Georgia’s last-in-the-nation SAT scores. Like it or not, they’ll also have to face up to rural expectations of a revival of the flag issue. How they meet these challenges while delivering the promised government by consensus will determine whether the GOP’s future is as bright as its present.