When it comes to political muscle in Washington, D.C., Georgia has almost no pull.
The days of the late Sen. Richard B. Russell or the now-retired Sen. Sam Nunn are a distant memory. The days of a President Jimmy Carter and a Georgia mafia running Washington, D.C. is for the history books.
Today, we are the state that didn’t get invited to the national dance. With a Republican governor, a Republican-dominated legislature, two Republican United States senators, we have little pull with a Democratically-controlled White House and a Democratically-controlled Congress.
So we sit back and watch our neighboring states receive hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, from the federal government to finance their grand plans for high-speed rail and an upgraded infrastructure.
Oddly enough, we were in a similar spot back in late 2000 (just reverse the political parties).
Georgia had a Democratic governor — Roy Barnes; a Democratic Lt. Gov. — Mark Taylor; and two Democratic U.S. senators — Max Cleland and Zell Miller. Yet the nation had just elected (by the slimmest of margins), a Republican president — George W. Bush.
Theoretically, that should have put Georgia on the sidelines.
But an interesting thing happened.
Barnes had selected former Gov. Zell Miller to fill the unexpired term of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Republican. Miller went to Washington as the most junior of all 100 senators and as a member of the minority party.
Yet overnight, Miller became the most powerful senator in Washington At the time, the Senate was evenly split along party lines. Miller realized that if he became the swing senator (a Democrat willing to work with a Republican administration), he would emerge as a power player.
That’s how Miller became the U.S. senator who quickly became an insider at the Republican White House (much to the consternation of Georgia Democrats who felt Miller had betrayed them).
So what is the lesson from a decade ago that can apply to Georgia today?
It provides a strategic road map of how Georgia can regain its historic positioning of one of the most politically important states in the country.
It all comes down to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a man who has been a bi-partisan player for most of his political career. Granted, Isakson has been leaning further and further right, distancing himself from his traditionally more moderate stances on issues.
And yet I believe that at his core, Isakson is an independent Republican who could comfortably become a rational bridge between the Republican senators and the Democratically-controlled Senate and White House.
After the recent election in Massachusetts to fill the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat went to a Republican, the Democrats lost their super, filibuster-proof 60-seat majority.
That means that if one Republican senator emerges as a man or woman of “maybe” rather than just being part of the “Party of No,” he or she will become one of the most important leaders in Washington, D.C.
Isakson is a perfect candidate to play that role. He can reach across the aisle and say, let’s come up with a plan for health care, for jobs, for clean energy, for debt reduction; plans that can garner bi-partisan support and move our country forward.
Since the Massachusetts vote, President Barack Obama has spent time reaching out to the minority party. The president knows that if he is going to get key legislation passed, he will need at least one, if not several, Republicans who are willing to join in a constructive conversation for the good of the country.
Isakson can be that Republican. Consider his political track record.
Back in 1990, Isakson was the Republican nominee for governor, but he lost to Zell Miller. But that didn’t stop Miller and Isakson from forging a partnership to help improve Georgia. Miller convinced Isakson to chair the state school board and bring order to what had been a chaotic and politically divisive board.
Just as a historical reminder, as governor, Miller gained national stature when he endorsed Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for president in 1991. Georgia also gave Clinton a key victor during the 1992 primaries, helping the Arkansas governor become Democratic nominee.
At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Miller delivered the keynote address. And when Clinton won the presidency, Miller had a special entré to the White House. That was another high watermark for when Georgia had real political clout in Washington.
But the bi-partisan relationship between Miller and Isakson showed the real power of political party elasticity. Yes, they had run against each other; and yes, one was a Democrat and the other was a Republican. Yet they respected each other while sharing a common love for Georgia.
When Miller decided not to run for re-election in 2004, it was Isakson who successfully won Miller’s seat and became one of a 100 senators, first as part of the majority party and later in the minority party.
As the 2010 elections began heating up, Isakson decided against running for governor and chose instead to run for re-election.
Arguably, given the highly partisan tone these days, it could be politically risky for Isakson to emerge as a consensus builder in Washington — especially among rabid Republicans.
But for those of us who want to see Georgia regain its national prominence and for those of us who long for bi-partisan cooperation on issues critical to our nation’s future, Isakson could become a real hero.
All Isakson needs to do is to walk back down the path that Miller paved a decade ago. And given his genuine sense of fairness, Isakson could outshine Miller by showing how successful true bi-partisanship can be.
It’s our one best hope to get Georgia back in the game.