An Ardent Moderate

Johnny Isakson

Johnny Isakson’s decisive election to the U.S. Senate completes the Republican sweep of Georgia, giving the state two Republican senators for the first time in modern history.

Isakson, whose victory culminates a long political career that includes an unsuccessful run for governor in 1990, is well-respected among Democrats and Republicans, cut from the same cloth as longtime Sen. Sam Nunn. He has a reputation as a hard-working bridge-builder who prefers to spend his time finding areas of agreement rather than dwelling on differences. For these reasons, the freshman senator is Georgia Trend’s 2005 “Georgian Of The Year.”

We asked veteran political observer Bill Shipp to prepare this analysis of Isakson’s political career and to look ahead to the role he will likely play in the U.S. Senate. — The Editors

When you see Johnny Isakson on “Hardball,” you’re going to miss Zell Miller. Georgia’s new senator is not much for histrionics. Unlike Zell, Johnny is unlikely to hiss at his TV host or suggest a duel in the center of Manhattan. Isakson probably won’t squint menacingly or angrily grit his teeth in the Miller manner.

Instead, the 60-year-old freshman senator from Georgia is likely to smile and try to ingratiate himself with the TV people. After appearing in one of those blah-blah talking-heads’ interviews, Johnny may even walk around the studio and shake hands. If MSNBC’s rude interlocutor Chris Matthews interrupts him repeatedly and tries to put words into his mouth, Isakson will simply smile and attempt to make his point another time. At the end, he’ll tell Matthews, “I really enjoyed being with you.” He will not shout (as Miller did), “Get out of my face!” What a disappointment after Miller!

Going from Zell Miller to Johnny Isakson in the Senate is like going from red-hot peppers to vanilla ice cream. The Miller-Isakson contrast is stark.

Miller was not a good fit in the U.S. Senate. Though Miller said 20 years ago that his life’s goal was to serve in the Senate, once he arrived there he quickly came to detest the institution. He rose to national prominence as an out-of-control Democrat who constantly scorned his fellow party members and followed exactly the drumbeat of GOP President George W. Bush.

Isakson will be different. The Senate ought to suit his style just fine. He is contemplative and moderate and not averse to compromise. Isakson may not produce Zell-like headlines, but he will follow Miller’s footsteps as a team player for Bush.

Isakson also will shortly be in a position to help his Georgia constituents, perhaps more than Miller ever could as a senator. The Peach State has not had a senator with such potential for excelling in homework since Sen. Sam Nunn departed Washington in 1996.

Nunn’s Democratic successor, Max Cleland, was immediately caught up in national partisan wars and refused to break ranks with liberal Democrats, even if it might cost him his Senate seat — which it did in 2002.

Alas, the late Sen. Paul Coverdell showed promise of greatness, but he died of a cerebral hemorrhage before he could realize his full capabilities.

A Clean Slate

Despite a long career in politics, Isakson comes to the Senate with a relatively clean slate and bushels of unspent political capital.

After two stunning setbacks (Miller defeated Isakson for governor in 1990; the GOP nixed Johnny for the Senate nomination in 1996), Isakson won the 2004 election with ease.

He captured the Republican nomination without a runoff against an established middle-Georgia congressman, Mac Collins, and an eloquent business executive, Herman Cain. His opponents tried to label Isakson an ardent “moderate” — which most Georgians apparently like.

Isakson’s general-election campaign turned into a cakewalk. Democrats chose one-term Congresswoman Denise Majette as their nominee. She abandoned her House seat to go for the Senate, declaring that God instructed her to run. Despite airing several effective TV ads, Majette never had a chance. Her bipartisan supporters from the 4th District felt betrayed. After defeating over-the-top Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in 2002, Majette opened the way for McKinney’s return to the House when she decided to enter the Senate race. Isakson clobbered Majette on Election Day.

Remarkably, Isakson owes Democrats for part of his comeback and eventual election to the Senate.

After his primary loss for the Senate in 1996, Gov. Zell Miller appointed Isakson chairman of the state school board. The governor also allowed him to choose the board’s other members. Isakson is credited with dousing the fires of controversy surrounding the board and then-state school superintendent Linda Schrenko.

When Isakson won a special election to succeed 6th District Rep. Newt Gingrich, a Democratic redistricting committee presented him with a Northside, upper-crust district completely to his liking. Political sources speculated Isakson may have drawn the map himself.

Democrat Miller’s decision to retire and to steer clear of meddling in the 2004 Senate election allowed Isakson to move to the upper chamber with minimum fuss.

Isakson was among the first wave of Georgia Republicans to be elected to state office. He was chosen for the state House in 1976 — the same year Georgia went overwhelmingly in favor of native-son Democrat Jimmy Carter for president.

Up The Ladder

Isakson climbed the new Republican ladder quickly and became House minority leader in 1983. Although he campaigned enthusiastically for GOP candidates, he never quite became a member of Gingrich’s “Kill All Democrats” Club. Isakson was one of the few Republicans who had easy access to Speaker Tom Murphy during that Democratic leader’s long tenure.

Isakson’s almost-fatal political mistake occurred in 1996 when he announced he was a pro-choice candidate for the Senate. Many pro-life Republicans never forgave him, and his stance cost him the Republican nomination.

Since then, and especially during the 2004 campaign, Isakson has drifted increasingly to the right. He is now anti-abortion (with some exceptions), anti-gay marriage and pro-gun rights. On the Issues, a nonpartisan Web site that rates candidates, labels Isakson “a Libertarian-leaning conservative.”

As a U.S. House member, Isakson served on the education and transportation committees and was a strong advocate of the president’s No Child Left Behind Act.

Isakson hopes also to have major impact in the Senate on education and transportation — two issues of vital importance to Georgia.

National analysts lump Isakson in with the five-pack of Southern Senate seats that went from Democrat to Republican in the November election and moved the national GOP to within five Senate votes of having a filibuster-proof 60 seats.

For Georgia, however, Isakson is more than simply another Republican soldier in Washington. He projects the proper image for the state. His election says that we are not Mississippi or Alabama.

Instead, Isakson’s triumph sends the message that, in the end, Georgia is a fiscally conservative, business-oriented state, not interested in demagogues or hatemongers. We want to resume our place as the empire state of the region.

No matter how the media and some of our own elected officials represented us in the pre-election months, Georgia is progressive and forward-looking. Isakson’s no-problem, no-runoff primary victory and his landslide election offer proof of that positive image.

One other thing: Covering Isakson’s political career over the years, one noticed repeatedly that his wife, Dianne, almost never smiled, particularly during press conferences. Reporters had the feeling she despised politics, especially the meanness and the fishbowl environment. On the night of Isakson’s Senate victory, Dianne gave photographers a huge grin. She may know that she will not have to endure another hotly contested political campaign for a long, long time.

Categories: Political Notes