WASHINGTON — Can you be a tough liberal who also knows how to work with the other side? Can you be unwavering in trying to lift the wages of the low-paid, bring health coverage to the uninsured, equalize educational opportunities and protect the environment — and still compromise enough to get all these things done?
These words could be about the late Edward M. Kennedy. But they also describe Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who announced his retirement this week. If the House has a Ted Kennedy, he’s it.
Characteristically, Miller did not signal his impending departure with some whining, nostalgic proclamation pining for a lost Golden Age of civility. He loves a lively legislative scrap and is in a robustly good mood about the long-term possibilities of progressive politics. Congress, he insists, could still get around to increasing the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, reforming immigration and expanding pre-kindergarten programs. And far from running away from the Affordable Care Act, Miller sees it as one of the crowning achievements of his time in Congress.
Miller, 68, was first elected to Congress in 1974 as part of the reformist Democratic class swept in by a reaction to Richard Nixon’s scandals. He’s one of only two continuously serving “Watergate babies” left in the House, though this 6-foot-3 bear of a man laughs that this is “not my preferred title.”
Miller hails from a time when liberals didn’t apologize for trying to make the country fairer and notes that he won his first race on the basis of only two promises: “to end the Vietnam War and to enact single-payer health care.” He thus sees Obamacare as a giant step, “the biggest gift to economic security for families since Social Security.”
But if Miller does not whine, he’s a realist about how much has changed during his four decades in Congress. He reveres Kennedy and worked closely with him, along with Rep. John Boehner, former Republican Sen. Judd Gregg and President George W. Bush, to pass the No Child Left Behind Act. Yet Miller observed that if Kennedy came back to life, he “would have a hard time recognizing this legislative process.”
Like Kennedy, Miller is an unabashed champion of the labor movement. “You can chart the decline of the wage base and middle-class family incomes with the decline of unions,” he told me on Wednesday. “It doesn’t mean the unions were always right, but it does mean they were very effective on behalf of the middle class.”
Yet he and Kennedy helped craft an education bill not entirely to the teachers unions’ liking because they saw a liberal principle at stake in the need to raise the performance of low-income and minority children. Two liberals and a group of conservatives could agree on this: “Let’s find out what we’re getting for the dollars we’re spending.”