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Too Much Miller?

Did Zell Miller help or hurt George W. Bush's cause?

4:00 PM, Sep 2, 2004 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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New York

ZELL MILLER'S TIRADE against the Democratic party on Wednesday marked a turning point in the campaign. Until then, Republicans had been pursuing two incompatible strategies at the same time: appealing to undecided centrists with rational appeals, and trying to pump up turnout with emotional ones. A fish-or-cut-bait decision has been made. The latter strategy will predominate, even if the former isn't abandoned altogether.

Miller's speech was full of snideness and contempt. He belittled John Kerry for wanting to go to war with an arsenal of "spitballs," accused Democrats (in a rather conspiratorial way) of a "manic" urge to humiliate the commander-in-chief in wartime, and even used the word "warped" to describe the Democratic leadership. It infuriated Democrats the more since Miller is nominally a Democrat himself. Having used the opportunistic Miller as an orator to make Bill Clinton sound more conservative than he actually was at the Democratic convention in 1992, Democrats are being hoist by their own petard. They're in a weak position to complain that Miller is misrepresenting Kerry's positions now.

Voters for whom the fortunes of the Democratic party are not a primary consideration are likely to have found elements of the speech persuasive, particularly Miller's litany of the votes Kerry has cast against new weapons systems, alongside explanations of how useful they proved to be: the B-1 bomber that "dropped forty percent of the bombs in the first six months of Enduring Freedom," the F-14A Tomcats that "shot down Qadafi's Libyan MIGs over the Gulf of Sidra." And so on. But Miller's tally of Kerry's votes could have been delivered just as effectively in the more statesmanlike speech Dick Cheney gave just moments later.

The polarizing, turnout-focused campaign that Miller ushered in could work. But the Bush forces will get much less bang out of this particular speech than they expect. Miller's anger may take on a second life in media retrospect--much as Pat Buchanan's "religious and cultural war" speech at the Houston convention in 1992, although a hit in the immediate aftermath (according to snap polls), turned, under relentless media analysis, into an electoral albatross. The Miller speech could also "help" in an unhelpful way--merely driving up majorities in states that are already in the Bush column.

The actor Ron Silver, a committed Democrat when he first enthusiastically backed Rudolph Giuliani for mayor in the 1990s and still a fervent supporter of certain Democratic causes, could have given a much more plausible conversion narrative. Structurally, the goal of a "defector" speech (and there were many of them at the Democratic party convention in Boston) is to show that the opposition's candidate is so radical or otherwise undesirable that reasonable members of the opposition party are abandoning him. Disgruntled Democrats can do this to devastating effect. Ex-Democrats cannot.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.