Politics

02.24.14

It’s Matt Miller Time! Longtime Radio Host Runs for Congress

The race to replace Henry Waxman is on, and the host of ‘Left, Right, Center’ is at the helm, looking to do more than just talk the talk.

Ira Glass for President! Robert Siegel for Vice-President! Nina Totenberg for attorney general, obviously, and then maybe those Car Talk guys can share the job of Secretary of Transportation. Fundraisers will phase away, of course, in favor of pledge drives.

The complete public radio takeover of federal government may still be a long ways off, but the Tote Bag caucus in the House of Representatives could grow by one come November when Matt Miller, the longtime host of the nationally syndicated public affairs show “Left Right and Center” hopes to be sworn into Congress, replacing the retiring Henry Waxman.

Miller, who is also a columnist for The Washington Post (and a former one for The Daily Beast), said that he had looked at getting on the other side of the microphone for a while.

“I spent a good chunk of my life writing books and columns and trying to figure out what the answers are to the biggest challenges the country faces,” said the one-time Clinton admin official in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, where “Left, Right Center” is based out of local public radio station KCRW. “I always thought that when Henry Waxman stepped aside I would look at this.”

Miller certainly has fluency both around a microphone and around the big ideas that campaigns are supposed to be about.

Waxman, a liberal icon who counts the Clean Air Act and Obamacare among his many achievements in a nearly four decade career, suddenly announced his retirement last month—“no one thought it would happen so soon,” Miller said. “We had to do some quick soul-searching as a family”—and the race to replace him is quickly turning into one of the most entertaining political battles of the year.

Besides Miller, there is Wendy Greuel, a former city controller who by most accounts would be the mayor of Los Angeles by now had she not run an inept race against Eric Garcetti. There is Ted Lieu, a state lawmaker who has become the quick favorite of local progressives.

California is still getting used to its “Top Two” primary system, which means that the top two vote getters—regardless of party—face-off in the general election, even if one them wins the primary in a landslide. This has provided an opening to Marianne Williamson, a New Age guru and the author of works like The Gift of Change: Spiritual Guidance for Living Your Best Life and A Course In Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight  Forever, who is running as an Independent. Once thought to be something of joke candidate, Angelenos say she is now gaining traction, threatening to pour some of her own career fortune as a popular guru into the race, and hiring both former Howard Dean political advisor Joe Trippi and a former longtime Wendy Greuel advisor to run her campaign.

“I am completely inspired by her,” said Howie Klein, founder and treasurer of Blue America PAC and a prominent progressive blogger. He said that the Williamson campaign has been in touch with liberal lions of the House like Alan Grayson and Keith Ellison.

“Politics for me is of a spiritual nature. A lot of us on the left have forgotten that,” he added. “Why do people call her ‘flaky’? Because she has a spiritual approach? Marianne Williamson has saved people’s lives.”

Miller then, who represents the “center” on “Left, Right and Center,” has to position himself as someone more grounded than a guru, but an outsider who doesn’t have the baggage that his other opponents, with their long careers in office, have.

“I think he will run as an alternative that is not that alternative,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs. “In California politics, having the establishment behind you is really great right up until the moment it becomes a huge liability.”

Miller comes with his own advantages, including a fundraising base that stems from being a sort of local celebrity and a national voice on the need to radically modernize much of how government works. Plus, although Miller now sounds more like a candidate than a radio host who likes to provocate both left and right, he is not naïve about the challenges in winning over the Democratic base. 

 “It is very hard for someone who is not a career politician entering the arena to get all of the endorsements that the career politicians who have been working on them for two decades. I respect and honor all of those groups. I think [endorsements] will be a challenge, but as a practical matter I think I need to run a different kind of campaign, one that offers solutions to voters in ways that will break through the same old same old,” he said.

Miller certainly has fluency both around a microphone and around the big ideas that campaigns are supposed to be about. In the course of a brief interview, he moved easily between keeping health costs down, making the teaching profession more attractive, and the need to invest in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, pausing only to let his dog pawing at his door in. (“My research assistant,” he said.)

To anyone who has listened to his show, it is a familiar spiel, with Miller chastising the GOP for being “retrograde and nihilist” and Democrats for being “timid and inadequate.”

“Do you know Marty Feldstein?” he said, queuing up a rant he has delivered probably hundreds of times on air. “He was a chief economic advisor to Ronald Reagan. He says we need a 200 billion dollar infrastructure plan. That is an order of magnitude bigger than the mainstream debate that Washington is talking about. Barack Obama doesn’t have a $200 billion infrastructure plan. The progressive caucus does. What is going on in our debate when you have the progressive caucus and Reagan’s economic advisor saying this is the magnitude of what we do to our infrastructure. But the mainstream debate isn’t there.”

Miller has often written and spoken about how some favored liberal programs like social security and Medicare need to be reformed in order for there to be money for progressive causes that address inequality. It may be a trickier dance in a primary in which the most partisan Democrats are often the only ones who show up at the polls. He mostly avoids calling himself a “centrist” now.

“I like to say that the center in Los Angeles is practically Marxist in the rest of the country. So what I try to do is move common sense solutions To. The. Center,” he said, pausing after each word to make sure his meaning was clear. “As Democrats we need to speak much more boldly about how we address inequality and not just pay lip service to these ideas.”

Likewise, Miller often had warm things to say about groups like No Labels and Americans Elect, which tried to get people into office outside of the traditional party system—a system that Miller is now trying to work to his own benefit.

“I sometimes wrote in favor of what Americans Elect was doing. I know [group founders] Nancy Jacobson and Jon Huntsman—I tried to recruit Jon Huntsman to our show and he said he agrees with me too much to be on our show! I said, ‘John  I watched you in the Republican primary, I don’t think so!’—But I admire what those folks are doing and anyone who tries to bring a problem-solving lens to politics. What I was trying to do with all of my work is challenge the terms of the debate.”

There are, to be sure, other former radio pros who have been elected to Congress, including Trey Radel, the former Florida member who was recently busted for cocaine, former Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth, and Blake Farenthold, a Tea Party member from Texas. But polling stations are littered with the dreams of those who hoped to hop over from talking about the news to making it themselves.

Miller, though, disputed the notion that behind every political commentator is a would-be-politician waiting for their moment.

“I actually think when you are a communicator and observer you can try to influence the debate and hope people adopt your ideas. I feel very fortunate. I have written books that presidents read—you know, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and Paul Krugman and Bill Bradley and Bob Kerry all have been very generous in the praise of some of what I have written. But my wife says, you have been writing these books for 15 years and nothing has changed. Don’t you think it is time you get in there yourself?”