Big Doings in the Garden State; Zell Miller's Yesteryear

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Last week was a crazy one for the Most Underrated State in the Union. Bret Schundler, the conservative Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey, scourge of courts and frivolous lawsuits, pressed on with a frivolous lawsuit of his own until he was finally rebuffed by the State Supreme Court on Thursday. It was aimed at getting Bob Franks?narrowly defeated by Jon Corzine and his $60-plus million in last fall's Senate race?disqualified from the race. Franks, of course, is in the race in the first place due to the loan-reporting difficulties undergone by acting governor/Senate president Donald DiFrancesco.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Republican Congresswoman Marge Roukema said she plans to put forward a draft resolution condemning The Sopranos on the grounds that it was a kind of Mediterranean Amos 'n' Andy, grossly and exploitatively insensitive to Italians. (I must not know the same ones Roukema does; my Italian friends like the show disproportionately.) Roukema's Democratic fellow Garden Stater Bill Pascrell was quick to associate himself with her jihad. Robert Torricelli, meanwhile, announced through a spokeswoman that he would pass on Roukema's initiative, since it would be hypocritical to attack a show that he's so obsessed with that he organizes his whole week around it. He may just have been distracted, since last week also brought the news that he had written to bully North Korea's ambassador into freeing up frozen assets for the Torch's jilted moneybags, David Chang.

Drunk with Words

Anyone remember Empower America? That's the Republican Super-Think Tank where Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander parked in the early 1990s while all of them prepared presidential runs that (with the sort-of exception of Alexander in 1996) never happened. Even in its heyday, not much thinking ever went on in that tank. But since then its profile has faded so rapidly that only an out-of-the-loop Democrat would take seriously an invitation to speak there.

That's why, when Empower America made it into the newspapers last week for a major economic-policy address by Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, plenty of Washingtonians underwent the shocked feeling one gets when opening up the obituaries section and learning of the demise of a celebrity one had assumed was already dead. Miller was defending the principles that led him to cast one of five Democratic votes for the Bush budget plan (along with Sens. Breaux, Baucus, Cleland and the Nebraska Nelson), resorting to Democratic Leadership Council rhetoric from the early 1990s. Miller intoned, "My Democrat friends need to be reminded?to return to those days of yesteryear when they supported cutting tax rates and did not engage in this endless class warfare."

So much about this little peroration was food for thought. First off, why does "class warfare" have such a bad name nowadays? Are people confusing it with the violence of Marx's "class struggle"? I thought politics was about class warfare.

Second, what historical era does Miller think he's in? When is "yesteryear"? Does he mean the Kennedy administration? There was a window during the Clinton administration when certain Democrats would hesitate before taking up the party line. But that era seems to have ended: The Chuck Robbs and Bob Kerreys of the Senate have been replaced by Jon Corzines and Hillary Clintons. Even so, there's not a single Democratic senator who's urging anything more than merely watering down the Bush tax cut.

But finally, regarding the use of the word "yesteryear" in the first place, what is it about Southern politicians that makes them think they're being so skin-tinglingly poetic when they're just palavering on about policy? It may be lachrymose officialese Miller is employing, but it's still officialese. Listening to Miller?or to Bill Clinton, or to the unlamented Dale Bumpers?always puts me in mind of Kingsley Amis' tirades about similar tendencies among Irish writers of the 1940s and particularly the now-forgotten W.R. Rodgers:

"I think what I hate most about him," Amis wrote, "is his pride in being an Irish writer?gay, dazzling, drunk with words and with something of the bard about him, all rather too swift-moving and wild for a slow English intelligence to cope with; by the time the critic has got to him?arrah! sure he's op and away like a flash o' lightnin' on the Connemara hills? Like all the Irish, what a facetious bore pretending to be a wild wit." As Amis said of Rodgers on another occasion: "I mean it doesn't let up for a single line, does it? It just goes on being vertiginous piss continuously."


A number of journalists have noted in recent weeks that, for the first time since the mid-1990s, "education" has been toppled from its number-one spot on the list of issues Americans tell pollsters they're most worried about. This has always been malarkey. Americans aren't really concerned about education. The evidence is, first, that they tell the very same pollsters they're perfectly satisfied with their own children's schools, and, second, that there's no popular groundswell?outside of what's been fomented by a few think tanks?to change things at all. In a time of prosperity with almost literally nothing to worry about, Americans told pollsters they were concerned about education because Bill Clinton told Americans they were concerned about education.

About the only American who became concerned enough about these poll numbers in the 1990s to act upon them is George W. Bush, whose education plan passed out of the House Education and Workforce Committee last week on a vote of 41-7. Republican Robert Schaffer of Colorado complained, "It's a sad day when Republicans pass a bill that's to the left of Ted Kennedy." And he's right. Bush's education plan is straightforward, double-barreled liberalism. It's a big-spending bill that does nothing to promote school choice, and its testing provisions will eventually allow a dramatically increased federal role in local classrooms.

That was not even the most spectacular ideological travesty of last week. Donald Rumsfeld's "top-to-bottom" defense review is proceeding apace, and word is beginning to filter out of the Pentagon that the result of it may be something less than a top-to-bottom rejiggering of the military. Translated into terms legislators understand, this means that instead of a whole new generation of weapons systems to be divvied up as pork by greedy senators, the upshot of the defense review may be cuts in big boondoggle projects. No place in the United States has more of these than Pascagoula, MS, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's home town. That might explain why Lott is threatening to hold up Defense Dept. nominees unless he receives more communication from Rumsfeld about the review-in-progress.

The crowning play against partisan type, however, came when President Bush restated President Clinton's hard line on Serbia, saying that aid to help reconstruct the country we so wantonly wrecked will not be forthcoming until new Serb President Vojislav Kostunica agrees to deliver Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague to stand trial on war crimes. You'd think that the attention given the depredations of Bob Kerrey's SEAL team in 1969 would have softened our line a little bit, especially given that the incident that led us to issue an ultimatum to Serbia?the massacre of 45 people at Racak?is not easily distinguishable from our own Mekong Delta handiwork.

But last week, I, too, found myself making common cause with people whose ideology I don't share. At least, I may be the only non-leftist in Washington who's not getting agitated over the coming energy crunch. It's a measure of just how dependent Republicans are on the SUV Belt of the South and West that that the GOP is beginning to worry mightily. That's why former Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy's statement that Bush and Cheney "like higher [gas] prices because they're from the oil business" is largely baloney. Bush and Cheney were in the oil business, but they've built their careers as politicians from Mall-ville. Higher gas prices are highly dangerous to them. Kennedy would have been better off simply to have said, as I do, "I'm from the Northeast. If you guys think commuting 70 miles to your job on some Georgia highway is a life, that's your problem."

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