Mr. Miller's Advantage

Friday, June 2, 2006

THE CONTEST in Virginia between the two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate is easily caricatured as war hero vs. wonk. One candidate, James Webb of Falls Church, is a scrappy former Marine and much-decorated Vietnam veteran with impressive literary credentials and an Emmy Award to his name. The other, Harris Miller of Fairfax County, is a longtime Democratic party apparatchik whose passion for public policy contributed to his success as a telecommunications lobbyist. Some Democrats have convinced themselves that only a candidate with Mr. Webb's résumé and panache stands a chance of knocking off incumbent Sen. George Allen, a Republican with a daunting track record of electoral success. But that would be missing a key point, which is this: Of the two primary candidates, Mr. Miller is the better-briefed, better-focused and more thoughtful. He would make the better senator.

Mr. Webb -- fluent in Vietnamese, champion of veterans' causes, successful novelist and Hollywood screenwriter -- is an undoubtedly compelling figure. Having served President Ronald Reagan as secretary of the Navy, he has recently recast himself as a Democrat out of disgust for the Bush administration's policies on a range of issues.

He was an early and prescient critic of the war in Iraq and its likely consequences, a stand that won him converts in the blogosphere and beyond. But since announcing his candidacy he seems to have given scant time and attention to issues ranging from education to tax policy to immigration, as if the cachet of his military past excuses him from having to master the pressing questions of the present -- not the best trait for a candidate for the Senate. Mr. Webb's somewhat strident populism on trade policy tends toward xenophobic sloganeering and business-bashing. And while he is right to focus concern on the widening disparities of Americans' income and wealth, his ideas about the problem's causes and possible antidotes are sketchy.

As for Mr. Miller, it is, admittedly, an inopportune year for a candidate to have the word "lobbyist" appended to one's name. Nonetheless, he makes no apologies for it, nor for having been an early advocate of the Internet as a vehicle for job creation. Whatever his deficits in dash and elan -- "I'm a shorter, poorer version of Mark Warner," he says of the popular former Virginia governor -- Mr. Miller is a forceful, smart, unapologetic proponent of his views.

He is an astute critic of America's sluggish response to the challenges posed by an interwoven global economy and a tough-minded backer of budgetary restraint and fiscal sanity -- or, as he puts it, the need to curtail the era of instant gratification in politics. We may not share Mr. Miller's outlook on some issues, such as his distaste for standardized testing as a means to lift schools' quality. But there is no doubting the thought he has devoted to his positions, which are on the moderate end of the Democratic Party's spectrum. Virginians would be well served by having a lawmaker of Mr. Miller's evident energy, commitment and depth.

The primary will take place June 13.

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