For those of you who are only familiar with Zell Miller as
the Democrat who endorsed the Bush tax cut, his OpEd in
Monday's Times is well worth reading.
As I learned when writing this article on Miller
a couple months ago (the title is "Zellout," but authors seldom pick the titles
of their pieces, and I definitely wouldn't have chosen that one), Miller is a
fascinating, often very annoying, captivating, and in many ways admirable pol.
Miller looks at the fact that Al Gore got completely shut out in the South
last year and says that the Dems will never elect a president until they
reconnect with Southerners politically, regain their trust, etc. Miller says he
thinks that there should be, and one day will be, "universal access to health
care" (which if you read closely is not the same as universal health care) but
that before they can do that Dems have to pay down what he calls a 'trust
deficit' -- in essence show that Dems are trustworthy custodians of the public
moneys before voters will trust them to enact various progressive reforms.
He also has some interesting, and I think valid, things to say about how in
the South the gun control issue functions as a proxy for values and cultural and
There's a lot of good and valid information in his piece. But here's the
problem, summed up in the following paragraph:
Al Gore became only the third Democrat since the Civil War to lose
not only every state in the old Confederacy, but two border states as well.
George McGovern and Walter Mondale were the others. But they had an excuse: They
were crushed in national landslides. They didn't just lose the South. They lost
from sea to shining sea.
For Miller, the fact that Gore did so well
in so many other parts of the country makes his rout in the South more
blameworthy, problematic, etc. What he doesn't seem to appreciate is that these
two developments are intertwined. Democratic dominance of the Northeast and West
Coast is just the other side of the coin of Democratic debility in the South.
Gun control, social liberalism, and cautious but activist government aren't just
some bizarre outriders that can be tossed aside to pick up a few states in
Dixie. They're key to the Dems revival in other parts of the country.
Miller makes the point that Democrats have to prove their trustworthiness in
managing the public fisc with tax cuts and fiscal discipline before voters will
trust them again to use government for activist means. This was a common
argument by New Democrats and other party reformers in the 80s and early 90s.
And there was much truth in it. Yet to voters in many parts of the country that
case has already been made.
Miller is right that Democrats will have a difficult time winning the
presidency so long as Republicans can easily lock down every state in the South.
And this is a serious question for Democratic strategists. Where he's wrong is
to ignore the broader regional and cultural polarization of our national
politics, the connections between Democratic dominance in their new core
regions, and their difficulties in the South.
Those who make Miller's sort of argument run the risk of sounding like those
Republican naifs and rubes who used to say, 'hey, if we could just get the red
necks AND the blacks, then we'd be cookin' with gas, then the Dems would
never have a chance!'
Well, yeah. But that's not how politics works.
Many Southern Democrats are accustomed to thinking that they're in possession
of a sought-after jewel which Dems in the rest of the country must cater to and
kneel down before to get a chance at holding. But this is an outdated view which
made much more sense when the Dems were only at parity in places like the
Industrial Midwest, the West Coast, and the Northeast. Democrats do have a
Southern problem -- which we'll be talking more about in relation to John
Edwards -- but Miller doesn't have a national solution.