You know Lee Greenwood: He's the country-music star who hit patriotic pay dirt with his 1980s hit song "God Bless the U.S.A." Joe Miller, the Republican nominee for Senate in Alaska, looks much like Greenwood, to the point that he could easily be mistaken for the singer if he ever strolled through Nashville. And, listening to Miller speak, you hear echoes of Greenwood's famous tune. The tea party may not be looking for a single spokesman or leader, but in Joe Miller it has its personification: an outsider, a constitutionalist and someone who's thoroughly fed up with the political system's disrespect for the common man.
If I brought Greenwood up to Miller, he wouldn't wax nostalgic about the '80s, or assess the fine pleasures of a Hannity Freedom Concert. Miller would probably want to know why I spent three sentences talking about anything other than policy solutions. There's no shooting the breeze with Joe Miller. When he recently dropped by National Review's Capitol Hill office, the Alaskan was, in the words of my colleague Bob Costa, "cool as ice."
Miller's coolness is refreshing in such hot political times. A former U.S. Army officer who earned a Bronze Star in the first Gulf War, Miller gives the impression of great seriousness. He's a man on a mission.
"God's country isn't going to mean much if Washington, D.C., collapses," Miller says in response to a casual comment from a lower-49er about Alaska, the frontier land this Kansas boy chose to adopt as his home. "The fact of the matter is," Miller asserts, "the federal government, with the way that it's headed, is bringing the whole country down. I honestly believe that if we don't seize this opportunity to change the direction of D.C., that our country is not going to be the land of opportunity that it once was. The competitive nature, even at the individual level, is being depressed. ... Dependency from the federal level is all around us. The tax policies, the regulatory policies are designed to kill American business."
Miller knows that this position is somewhat rare in his state, which has happily lapped up federal funding in the past -- the "bridge to nowhere" still symbolizes an entire industry built on federal pork. But Miller says he and the citizens of Alaska want something different from their representatives. "People understand that we're nearing bankruptcy. And they understand that the numbers are so enormous that if we don't do something now, we're going to be buried under it." Alaskans, he says, "understand that fiscally, this cannot continue ... a state that is almost 40 percent dependent upon federal funding, as far as economic activity goes, is going to have to find something else to create jobs and to keep the state moving forward. And that, of course, is the natural-resource base. That is the argument that was used at statehood that carried the day by one vote: that we had, within the state, the ability to create an independent economy through our national-resource base. But, of course, since then, the federal government, it seems at every turn has restricted our ability to use those resources. But it is the only option we have. The human resources and the natural resources. And Alaskans understand that they need a fighter to get those things accomplished."
In other words: Don't tread on me. He may not be as colorful as Michele Bachmann, but the message is similar: It's about freedom, dummy.
When asked what kind of senator he wants to be, he admits that he's not interested in massaging Beltway egos. "Well, I'm not going to be a co-opted senator, I can tell you that much," he remarks with the confidence of a military man bearing a Yale degree. "That's the mandate of Alaskans. To get things done, and to change the direction of D.C. Frankly, I'm encouraged about what I'm seeing at the leadership level. I think there's an understanding that the mood of the nation has changed in such a way that there is not going to be toleration of business as usual."
He's realistic about the prospects for hope and change, tea-party style, and he's also determined. "I think that we have enough like-minded people coming into D.C., that we're actually going to be able to accomplish something. And none of these folks that are coming in are part of the establishment, for the most part. They are being told by their people at home that the system is broken, you better do something about it."
The Senate has long been the place good House ideas have gone to get stuck indefinitely. A Joe Miller could help shake up that side of the Capitol for the better. Alaskans can write in the Republican who lost the primary, Lisa Murkowski, who, in the best sore-loser fashion, is determined to keep her seat. Or they can very easily affirm the self-assured David who took on Alaska's Goliath. He's a bit foreign to Washington, no question. But it's the kind of foreign that goes well with the tea the House cafeteria will be serving come January. The Senate could use some of that brew, too.