The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat

Posted: Oct 21, 2003 12:00 AM

 Is there hope for Wesley Clark to rescue the Democrats from likely disaster in the 2004 presidential contest? Only if he runs to his nearest bookstore before he digs himself a hole just as deep as the one his Democratic opponents are stuck in.

 The book Clark needs to read is a controversial one that will be heard about in the coming weeks. "A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat," by U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., is a two-by-four across the collective heads of national Democratic Party leaders.

 Miller is the former state senator, lieutenant governor, governor and now U.S. senator who has decided not to stand for re-election in 2004, despite being wildly popular in his home state. His lifelong affiliation with the Democratic Party includes having steered then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992 to a burgeoning political strategist named James Carville, engineering a campaign-saving Georgia primary victory for Clinton and then delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention for the soon-to-be president.

 In light of this resume, few can fairly challenge Miller's right to state his uncompromised disappointment in the state of the Democratic Party. This is especially so, given that Miller has refused to abandon the Democrats even as he feels they have abandoned him. More, he laments its forsaking of an entire region of the country. As Miller puts it in his book, "Today our Democratic leaders look south and say, 'I see one third of the nation and it can go to hell.' "

 Presidential election trends back him up. Just about every poll so far has shown Democrats faring poorly against President Bush in the South. And no, racial divide is not the reason. Miller was the first Georgia governor to stand up for removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Today, he is a lone voice in the wilderness for advocating government-assistance initiatives to help rural African Americans escape from a seemingly endless cycle of poverty.

 Miller minces no words in explaining how the Democratic Party lost the South and many moderates and conservatives elsewhere. The party, he says, is too often "sucking up" to left-leaning special interest groups. He describes the modern Democratic Party as being "value neutral." In short, Miller accuses its leaders of simply being too liberal for much of mainstream America. He notes that in the 2002 mid-term elections, not a single Democratic national leader could come South "without doing more harm than good." From congressional leaders to presidential contenders, Miller names names and kicks butts.

 What effect will Miller's nervy observations have on the party he has served so long? Very little, he seems to believe. Early in the book, Miller readies himself for a sneering reaction from what he calls the "liberal Washington crowd," whom he goes on to depict as gold medalists in what they doubtless see as the "sport" of politics.

 Worse, Miller sees little hope that any of the party's candidates for the White House can or will do anything about the Democrats' slide to the left. Miller details the prospects of most announced candidates. Notably excepted is one retired Gen. Wesley Clark, whose candidacy took hold right after Miller's book went to press. When asked his opinion of Clark's candidacy for this column, Miller's office declined comment.

 It's not hard to guess the senator's take on Clark, who continues to take a beating from his opponents for having once tilted right in some of his views. It's likely Miller would castigate Clark for his tepid position on the U.S. engagement in Iraq. But he would also probably caution the general not to distance himself too greatly from his own supposed past Republican-like views by now embracing the same tired positions of the left-leaning interest groups that Miller says have done the Democrats such ill. And Miller, a bitter critic of the Iowa caucus, might applaud Clark's decision to skip that contest -- and perhaps advise him to skip the New Hampshire primary as well. Miller feels those two early bellwether states have become two leftist tails wagging the dog of a potentially moderate -- and possibly victorious -- Democratic Party.

 But it will do neither Clark nor any other Democrat any good to alter their campaign strategies without altering their policy positions as well. Zell Miller has spelled it out for national Democrats: Heed his words or suffer a stinging defeat against the president next year.