What Zell Miller Can Teach Republicans

Hugh Hewitt assembles thoughts he’s been expressing on his blog (and presumably his radio show) into a Weekly Standard article entitled, “A National Party? What Zell Miller can teach Republicans about Arlen Specter.

FROM ALMOST THE MOMENT he was appointed to the United States Senate, Georgia Democrat Zell Miller began to warn his party from the floor and via op-ed that it was allowing its ideology to cripple its appeal. Miller warned Terry McAuliffe and he warned Hillary Clinton. Eventually wrote a book that detailed how the Democrats’ intolerance of anything but left-wing orthodoxy had driven it into the electoral ditch.

A National Party No More remains required reading–but now for Republicans. For the first time in decades, the GOP has the margins in both House and Senate to cooperate with a Republican president in the defining of the country’s course for the next century.

So what could go wrong? Fast forward four years. The Democrats have convened in late summer in Cleveland to nominate former Virginia governor Mark Warner and Senator Barack Obama. It is the third night of the convention, and the Democrats have chosen as their keynote speaker . . . Arlen Specter. Or Olympia Snowe. Or Chuck Hagel. Or some other GOP big who has grown disgusted with his or her inability to have any influence on Republican deliberations. So they have bolted, bringing a message that their party breached its pledge to govern with the interests of the entire country in mind.

The prevention of just this sort of scenario is at the core of the debate over Senator Arlen Specter’s rise to the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A national party would welcome the visibility of a member whose views are not always–or even often–in step with the majority’s ideology. A national party intent on a generation of authority would avoid the mistake Democrats made when they drove every pro-life official from its leadership ranks.

Hugh makes some good points; the whole piece is worth a read. Certainly, we don’t want another Jim Jeffords scenario, where a spurned RINO managed to single-handedly overturn the results of a national election. It would be harder for Specter to do this, given that the Senate is at 55-44-1 rather than 50-50, but there are enough other liberal Republicans (Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chaffee, and Susan Collins bring the total to four) to create damage. And it’s not as if John McCain and Chuck Hagel can always be counted upon, either. (See Craig Henry’s essay for more thoughts on this.)

This is actually an age-old paradox that has plagued both parties. On the one hand, one needs to be inclusive and have a Big Tent if one wants to be a majority party. At the same time, there’s not much point in winning a majority if there are no governing principles uniting the party.

Specter and company should not be made to feel unwanted. The fact of the matter is that Blue State Republicans are comparatively liberal and Red State Democrats are more conservative than the dominant strains of their parties. (Although this is gradually becoming a moot point, as ticket splitting becomes less common and a true partisan realignment is taking place.) It’s better to have them vote with the party 55% of the time than voting against them 55% of the time, as would happen if they became Democrats.

Arlen Specter is, first and foremost, a representative of the people of Pennsylvania and should not be unduly pressured to vote against their interests. Nonetheless, it should, quietly and privately, also be made clear that committee chairmen are part of the party leadership. This carries with it an obligation to support the platform which got most members of the party elected to Congress in the first place.

Appointment of conservative judges to the courts was a major reason that President Bush won reelection and the Republicans won a majority in both Houses of Congress. If Specter can, in good conscience, support that mandate, then he should be welcomed as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. If he feels morally obligated to oppose that mandate, he should be given chairmanship of another committee and allowed to save face by publically making it seem like his idea.

Compromise is part and parcel of our system. The tail should never, however, be allowed to wag the dog.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bill_2 says:

    Could not agree more James. There are many reasons why the Dems have lost so much power. One being their inability to be “tolerant” of differing opinions like Zell under their tent. The result, the loss of the entire South.

    Republicans cannot make the same polorizing mistake. Specter worries me, but I have to keep falling back on the assumption that this White House knows what it is doing. Specter owes GWB his Senate seat for supporting him rather and he knows it. Of course he, Specter, will put on a different face to the PA voters, he has to so not to look so beholden.

    There is not much this White House does with things like this that do not work. If the Republicans want to build a bigger tent and get to 60 they are going to have to put some trust in these Moderate Republicans at some point. In doing so, it makes it harder for them to complain down the road. I must admit though, I am holding my breath on this one.

  2. McGehee says:

    If I had seen more evidence that Specter actually is grateful to Bush for the help in defeating Toomey in the primary, I’d feel better about it.

    But at least Specter has made a considerable effort to back away from how his remarks are characterized now that it looks as thought there might be consequences. He wants that chairmanship, and quitting the majority isn’t going to get it for him.

    The fact his remarks were spun the way they were, though, and that the spin has been so widely believed, is all thanks to Specter’s own behavior. Again, he’s having to face the possibility of major consequences for his behavior, and it does appear that he’s making the right noises now.

    So whichever way it shakes out, I’m confident that the end result in the long term will be manageable.