FLASHBACK: January 23, 2004A Conversation with Sen. Zell Miller

(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally posted on January 23, 2004.) It is almost as rare these days for a Democratic politician to declare himself a conservative as it is for a U.S. senator to write a best-selling book. But Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia has done both. For nine weeks now, Miller’s A National Party No More?The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat has been on the New York Times Best Seller list. It currently sits at number 14, and has risen as high as number 4. The book is selling well for good reason: Witty and tightly written, it is the clearest explanation yet of how the Democratic Party lost touch with old-time American values, while turning its back on the new American South (see “Conservative and Democrat”). Miller, who co-sponsored President Bush’s 2001 tax cut plan, is uniquely qualified to speak with authority on this subject. Active in Georgia politics since 1959, he served that state as lieutenant governor for 14 years, and as governor for eight. In July 2000, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes appointed him to replace Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, who had died. In November of that year Miller was elected to serve the remainder of Coverdell’s term, which expires this year. Last January ’03, Miller announced the he would not seek reelection. HUMAN EVENTS Editor Terence P. Jeffrey spoke with Miller last week about his book and about the prospects for his party. In your book, you talk about John F. Kennedy and his election back in 1960 and the fact that he did as well in Georgia as any place in the country, But JFK stood for some things the modern Democratic Party doesn’t stand for. He was a hawk on defense, an anti-Communist, he called for supply-side tax cuts. What do you think is the major force that drove your party away from those principles that JFK stood for 40 years ago?” SEN. ZELL MILLER: Well, I think that these extreme left, special-interest groups got between the party, certainly in the South, and the leadership of the party that was driving it in Washington. And instead of being for those kind of issues, and those kind of positions, they got more interested in a lot more of this social engineering, and the political correctness stuff, and things that really did not touch Middle America. You also talk in your book about people seeing the Democratic Party as a values-neutral party. Coming up on Monday we have a national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, the famous Georgian who 40 years ago himself wrote in A Letter From the Birmingham Jail that a just law is a law that comports with the law of God, and that an unjust law is one that doesn’t. That was the principle that gave success to the civil rights movement. Do you think the Democratic Party can justify much of its agenda today on that principle that Martin Luther King articulated 40 years ago? MILLER: No, I don’t think so. I think if Martin Luther King were alive today he would be very disturbed about the way that the Democratic Party that uses his name, and uses his legacy so much, has gotten away from the kind of values that he spoke about. One of the things I was impressed about in reading your book is your discussion of the fact that, unlike some Democrats like Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton, who migrated from being pro-life to being pro-choice, you made the reverse migration from being pro-choice to being pro-life. Why did that happen? MILLER: Well, I tried to explain that in the book by pointing out that I sort of automatically took that position back then because that was the position that was being taken by a lot of Democrats, by a lot of people. And I no sooner had taken that position than I began to see that, hey, there are certain qualifications to that position and that I’ve got to have in order to be comfortable. I talked about how I first was very much in favor of parental consent, not only parental consent but also notification. And I came out for being against any kind of public funding being used for abortions. Then on and on, until the partial-birth abortion legislation that I signed when I was governor, which I was very comfortable with and supported. Then, finally, as I got older, and as I got to see more and more of my progeny come along with my grandchildren and then four great-grandchildren, I realized how blessed I was to have these little ones and I could not imagine how my life would have been, how my life would have changed, had one of my children, or one of my grandchildren, made the decision to abort one of those little, wonderful human beings. So, all this time I was also reading more on the subject. I was particularly impressed with Sean Hannity’s chapter on it in Let Freedom Ring, in which he talked about the Dred Scott decision and how at that time it was argued and how that later it was changed, and why it was changed. I watched the demonstrators as they came to Washington, and the advocates for life, and the number of 42 million human beings having been killed because of Roe v. Wade, and it just grabbed a hold of me very strongly that what if one of my four great grandchildren or four grandchildren had been one of those that never did get to enjoy the life that they have now. So now you’ve actually come all the way around to the opinion that you would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and you would like to see unborn children protected in law in this country? MILLER: That’s exactly right. I’ve come to feel very strongly about that. You know, senator, on my side of the aisle, among Republicans and conservatives, you sometimes hear the argument that we just ought to forget about this abortion debate, we ought to leave this issue behind, it narrows the base of the party and it’s really hopeless, people are so dead-set in their views on this that we just ought to forget about it. Do you think that’s wise? Or do you believe there’s hope that if we continue debating this that more Democrats such as yourself can be converted and that in the end we actually can overturn Roe v. Wade and return to being a pro-life country? MILLER: I think without any question it ought to continue to be debated because I think there are more and more people out there hopefully like I am who are troubled by the way that it is now. And I think the more discussion, the more troubled they may become, until they finally come to the same conclusion that I came to. In your time in the Senate, I think maybe the Senate has been as divided as at any time in the history of our country. You have the filibusters that have been maintained with the Democrats trying to prevent appellate court nominees that President Bush has made. You’ve voted with Republicans?have you voted with Republicans on all of those? MILLER: Oh, every one of them. Yes. How much do you think that this issue, this question of abortion, is really the underlying, driving force in this division in the U.S. Senate?” MILLER: I don’t think there is any question that this is the main reason for the division. I think that becomes more obvious every time that we come up with another nominee, and you see that the common denominator that they object to is this person’s possible position on that issue. Why do you think so many of your fellow Democrats in the Senate are so adamant on this? MILLER: Well, I think it comes back to these special-interest groups and how they work together, because it’s not just one special interest group that you have to buck on something like this issue, because they are?for instance, NOW, or NARAL, or whatever it is that they’re called?they are connected with, say, the employee’s union and the employee’s union is connected with the gun-control special-interest group. Together that’s a lot of people and a lot of money. Is it your perception that gun-control interests and the labor interests and so forth are actually pushing the pro-abortion agenda in the United States Senate among Democrats? MILLER: Well, I think that they all go together. I think indirectly that’s it. They support one another. They’re intertwined. It’s hard to separate them. They would probably deny that, but I think they scratch each other’s backs all the time. Do you think that some of your Democratic colleagues in the Senate who have voted to maintain these filibusters [and who] in their professional political careers are adamantly pro-abortion, that in fact in their hearts they really are pro-life and that they are capable of going through the same evolution you are, it’s just that these interest groups and fear for their political careers is what’s holding them back? MILLER: I think that’s true. I think that’s true. In fact, I know it’s true. You know its true? You actually know of Democratic colleagues in the Senate who might have even expressed that point of view to you? I’m not asking you to name names. But? MILLER: I think that you can look at some of the individuals in the Senate who are, some of the Democrats in the Senate, who are pro-life. And, yet, they vote against cloture. I think it has to do with how the special-interest groups have all kind of joined together. There’s so much opposition to President Bush out there that that also brings them together as well. It’s probably more than just this one issue. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that they work within one another to help each other’s causes that sometimes are not what the organization itself was organized to do. Given what you know about the Senate and the way it’s handled these things, what do you anticipate is going to happen when President Bush makes his Supreme Court nomination? MILLER: I think this is what this is all about?in anticipation of that. That’s what’s hanging over all of these appointments even right now is: Well, if we let one of these go through and we have an up-or-down vote then what kind of position does that put us in when we get to a Supreme Court nominee? This is all really a warm-up for the mother of all battles. MILLER: [Laughter.] You put it much better than I could. Another deeply profound issue that’s arisen in our country in the last year is the question of gay marriage and whether people of the same sex have a right to marry one another in the United States. What’s your position on that? MILLER: My position is that marriage is a very sacred institution. I just celebrated my 50th anniversary, by the way. Congratulations. MILLER: Well, thank you. It is sacred. It is something that should be, that is only to be, for a man and for a woman. I am closely watching suggestions on what we might do to make sure that that is what continues to be the law of this land. And whatever it takes in order to ensure that I will be supporting. You would support a Federal Marriage Amendment that would ban homosexual marriage in the United States? MILLER: If that’s what it would take. There’s also the question of civil unions on the state level. Some people say there ought to be a federal amendment or legislation that prevents states from essentially legalizing homosexual marriages whether they’re called that or whether they’re called “civil unions.” Other people say that ought to be left to the states. Would you support federal action to prevent states from legalizing “civil unions” as they did in Vermont? MILLER: Well, I don’t see any difference. I can’t see the difference between civil unions and marriage myself. To me they’re practically one and the same. I don’t differentiate between them. There seems to be, at least from my perspective, some disconnect between the popular opinions and the values of the majority of Americans and the way the federal government, the legislature and the administration, acts on issues like this. Clearly, the majority of Americans share the view that you just expressed. But it seems like there is reluctance, at least from my perspective, on the part of people in Congress to act on this issue. Why do you think that is? MILLER: I think it comes to two things: One is they don’t want to be accused of being intolerant. But this goes beyond tolerance, I think. And the other thing is, they’re politicians, and again, these special interest groups join together to protect one another. They would in this, like they have been on the abortion issue. What do you think about the President’s immigration reform plan? MILLER: I’m very much a supporter of President Bush and I always look for ways that I can help the President because I believe in him very strongly. I am not persuaded on that. I’m trying to understand what is involved here, as far as the jobs that are needed by employers. I’m trying to understand it. But to me, illegal means illegal. And we are a nation of immigrants of course, we all know that, but we are also a nation of laws and I’m having trouble reconciling that. As you may know, Senator [Jeff] Sessions [R.-Ala.] and I have a bill that relates to using local law enforcement agencies to try to help out immigration officials as far as the illegal aliens are concerned, when it relates to these 400,000?some estimate as high as 800,000?violent felons who are here illegally. I understand you have endorsed President Bush for re-election. MILLER: I was asked the question when I came out with the book, “Who are you going to support for President?” And I knew who I was going to support for President because I knew the nine Democratic candidates?now down to eight?who were running, and I knew President Bush, and there was no comparison. So, I said early on that I was going to support President Bush for re-election. And I began to get more questions about “Why do you have this position?” so in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal several months ago I tried to put it in writing. It was because of how much I think of him as a person and how much I think of where he’s coming from as President, how important I think it is for him to be President at this particular time, when we live in a time of danger. I think the man, with his strength, gives us comfort in time of danger. It then grew into: Well, will you help him? And, of course, if I’m for somebody, I want to help him. So, it came to that. In your book you talk about how difficult it’s been for Democratic presidential candidates to win states in the South since Kennedy. Even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who were from the South, won only some states there. MILLER: Right. Do you see any of the current Democratic presidential candidates as having any chance of winning states in the South? MILLER: No, I really don’t. I mean, they talk a lot about Howard Dean’s not being able to carry states in the South, I don’t see any of them that can carry states in the South, including the two Southerners, Sen. [John] Edwards [N.C.] and [retired Gen.] Wesley Clark?because the positions they have taken on taxes for one thing, and the positions that they have taken on the war for a second thing, I think, makes them very, very unacceptable to a majority of the Southern voters. I’m not sure that I can speak very knowledgably about the Florida situation, but in most of the states in the South?and, I think, including Florida?they would have a very difficult time winning any of those states. Suddenly, in the last week or so Sen. [John] Kerry [Mass.] has made a resurgence in Iowa. At least one poll has him up. You don’t see Sen. Kerry as having a decent chance of winning states in the South?” MILLER: No, I don’t. In other words, the way you see things now, with the Democratic Party positioned the way it is, the only chance they really have of electing a President is to win all the Western states, all the Northeastern states, some of the big states in the Midwest. They lose anything there and they’re gone. MILLER: Right. Theoretically, you could win the election without carrying any of the Southern states. That’s never been done. But, theoretically, it could be done. And I’m not so sure that that might not be the strategy that some of the national Democrats right now are proposing. Probably not openly. Once you came out with your book and you made your analysis of this public, have any national Democratic leaders approached you and talked to you about how they can fix the problem, or at all been constructive in terms of how they can fix things rather than just keep them the way they are? MILLER: No, they prefer to kill the messenger rather than accept the message. I haven’t received that from many people. Some, who actually read the book?not in leadership positions with the national Democratic Party?but I’m talking about state legislators and I can say some in the Senate and the House, I remember one saying to me, “Right on”?or “Right as Rain.” I think is what he said: “Right as Rain.” [Laughter] But not very much. And that’s because of the leadership. Terry MacAuliffe, Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, the titular head of the party now, they are so far to the left that they can’t accept what I’m saying as any substance or any value. And what it would cost them to rebuild the party in the South would be to break with some of these left-wing interest groups and moderate the leftist position of the party in some areas? MILLER: And they’re not going to do that because that’s where so many of their foot soldiers and so much of their money come from. What conversely do you think limits the appeal of the Republicans in the Northeast and Far West? MILLER: I can’t speak with any authority as far as other parts of the country [are concerned], all I know is a little something about the South, but I think it has to do with the values. I think it’s where they are on values. I think it’s where they are as far as secularism is concerned. I think it’s those things. Another interesting thing you wrote in your book is that the strategy for Democrats in the South has been to win 40% of the white vote and 90% of the black vote and then they can win. MILLER: Yep. But you see the Republicans now starting to threaten the Democratic base in the black community. MILLER: I think that in due time that’s exactly what’s going to happen. I’m not sure what due time is. I’m not sure how many election cycles that is. But, some time off in the future, that 90% automatic black vote is going to crumble, and when it does, politics are going to be completely changed in the South. That may not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen. I don’t see how an African-American living anywhere in the South, or anywhere else in the nation, can look and see a Colin Powell as secretary of state, a Condoleezza Rice as the national security advisor, a Larry Thompson from Georgia as, for a while, the deputy attorney general, and on and on. I don’t see how they continue to look at that and remain so adamant in their position that their future lies with the Democratic Party. That’s changing in Georgia right now. Two of the candidates running for my seat in the U.S. Senate are African-American. Herman Cain is an outstanding candidate. MILLER: Oh, yes, he is. I was with him last night at President Bush’s function in Atlanta. He’s an outstanding candidate. I have a feeling Herman Cain can have a huge, dramatic impact on the U.S. Senate if he were elected. MILLER: Yes, there’s no doubt about that. I think he’s going to have an impact on the electorate in Georgia. I don’t know how well he’s going to do because so many African-Americans will turn a deaf ear towards him, even if he is of their color. But he, I think, is a prophet of what can and will be sometime in the future. And when that happens that will be a very positive thing for the United States of America? MILLER: It would be extremely positive for the United States of America. Senator, I really appreciate talking with you very much. MILLER: Thank you.