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Warner looks left, looks right, looks toward '08

In the battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, former Virginia governor Mark Warner has a lot going for him. But is one term as governor too thin a resume for a war-time presidential candidate?
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In the battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, no one is running harder than Mark Warner.

The former Virginia governor has a lot going for him: he is tireless and engaging; he talks about policy and international affairs with verve and a grasp of detail.

In a 30-minute interview, he comes across as an affable all-American guy who made a fortune in the cell phone business and happens to have an insatiable interest in politics.

At the end of his four years as governor, Governing magazine gave his administration an A- grade for its management of money and personnel. Only one other state, Utah, won as high a rating.

As chairman of the National Governors Association, he came up with a Medicaid proposal that would have slowed the growth of that $200 billion-a-year program.

Comptroller General David Walker and other non-partisan analysts warn that reform of Medicaid and other entitlements must be the highest priority for the next president — otherwise entitlements will eat up the entire budget. Warner's on top of this.

Attempt at Medicaid reform
Signaling his exasperation with partisan stubbornness in Washington, Warner said that when he briefed a congressional committee about the plan, “It almost cured me of any national political ambitions… The Republicans just (said), ‘I don’t care about the people, give me the number. The Democrats, on the other hand, were like, ‘Medicaid was brought down by Moses on tablets and you can’t change any of it.”

A Republican critic, Virginia House of Delegates Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, said of Warner’s term as governor, “His biggest failure — which he may view as his biggest success — was the enactment of the largest tax increase in Virginia history, breaking his campaign promise.”

But Warner replied, “The overwhelming majority of Virginians think it was the right thing to do to help fix our finances…. Since we had a two-to-one Republican legislature, it only got through because there was broad-based Republican support.”

Warner seems to be trying to run as a non-ideological candidate, someone who can transcend left-right divides.

“The issues facing our country no longer so much divide on left versus right, liberal versus conservative, but much more about the future versus the past,” he says in his speeches.

But the recent battles in Congress over the estate tax and the capital gains and dividend taxes prove that there are real and substantial liberal versus conservative clashes: one side, (Warner's party mostly), argues for more government redistribution of wealth; the other (mostly Republicans), calls for less redistribution of wealth.

Warner knows this, but seems to be thinking in terms of a “shared sacrifice” agenda that would win bipartisan support for tax increases and restraining the growth in entitlement spending.

Cultivating the bloggers
As he prepared a formal launch of a campaign that’s already well under way, Warner has astutely cultivated the most creative people in the Democratic blogosphere.

He was the first presidential hopeful to accept an invitation to speak at the Yearly Kos convention, last weekend’s gathering of 900 activists in Las Vegas sponsored by the Daily Kos web site. Warner was given the prime speaking spot on the schedule.

“He’s not the favorite (of the bloggers). But I think he’s getting a good hearing, and I think it’s the fact that he was the first candidate to commit to a conference that nobody was taking seriously,” said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the founder of Daily Kos web site.

Warner realized that the left-leaning bloggers wanted respect and he was willing to go to Yearly Kos to show, as Moulitsas said, that “maybe we weren’t the far-left extremist wackos that everybody else seems to think we are.”

Warner seems as comfortable with traditional John F. Kennedy Democrats in New Hampshire as with the Kos bloggers.

“I’d been hearing about him from friends in Virginia and they’ve been telling me he’s been extraordinarily effective,” said Democrat Jim Heffernan of Hanover, N.H after hearing Warner speak at the state party convention two weekends ago. “I can see exactly what they’ve been talking about: he’s articulate, he’s impassioned.”

Heffernan called him “a technocrat, an entrepreneur, a man who understands the tools of technology and can use them for the common good.”

Questions about candidacy
Balancing Warner’s advantages are unresolved questions:

  • Is one term as governor too thin a resume for a war-time presidential candidate?
  • How credible is Warner’s claim that he knows how to win in the South? After all, the northern Virginia counties of Arlington, Loudon and Fairfax, and the city of Alexandria, where Warner did so well in the 2001 election (far outperforming Al Gore’s showing in those same places in the 2000 election), are culturally indistinguishable from the suburbs of Chicago or Denver, partly because so many non-Virginians like Warner have moved there.
  • Is Warner vulnerable to the charge that he is too calculating in becoming whatever voters want him to become?

Warner was born in Indiana, raised there and in Connecticut, and educated at George Washington University in Washington D.C., and at Harvard Law School.

He moved to Virginia in the 1980s and helped run Democrat Doug Wilder’s campaign for governor in 1989. Warner was elected governor in 2001 with 52 percent of the vote.

Virginian Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, Warner’s consultant in his gubernatorial campaign, explained his success with Virginia voters.

“We took a Connecticut Yankee named Mark Warner who had an appreciation for our culture, who said right off the bat, ‘I don’t know anything about NASCAR racing, I don’t know anything about bluegrass music, I don’t know anything about hunting and fishing, but you know what, it’s important to you, so it’s important to me.’”

Can Warner win in the South?
In order to win in the South, Saunders said, “That’s all you’ve got to do, get through the culture. And once you’re through that culture and you get to the true message of Jacksonian democracy, of social justice and economic fairness, then we kick ass in the South.”

If he is the Democratic nominee, Warner’s candidacy will be a test of Saunders’s theory.

It will be worth watching how Warner straddles the divides within his party.

Warming up the crowd at last Saturday’s Yearly Kos event was a New York comedian named Katie Halper, who went into a riff of anti-Bush sarcasm, calling the president “an animal-human hybrid.”

She then told a joke about Mary Cheney, who has written a book about being a lesbian as well Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter.

How, wondered Halper, could Mary be so good-looking and yet be Dick Cheney’s daughter, calling it a case of “gene switching, or as I like to call it, pulling a Lieberman” — a snide and crowd-pleasing reference to Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has earned the contempt of Daily Kos bloggers for backing the Iraq war, refusing to support a filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, and other perceived offenses.

Throughout Halper’s performance, just a few steps off the platform, Warner watched and smiled genially. He shook Halper’s hand as she stepped off the platform.

Does Warner detest Bush enough?
But does Warner hate Bush and Lieberman enough (or at all?), does he sound outraged enough to satisfy the passionately anti-Bush, anti-Lieberman and anti-war contingent in his party?

After his speech to the Yearly Kos convention, one audience member confronted Warner and urged him to punish Bush and his aides.

Warner said, “Respectfully, where I’m going to put my efforts more is where we go going forward,” to which the disgruntled man replied, “One of the great ways to get our (international) reputation back is to put the bums in jail.”

It was striking that in his speech to the Yearly Kos convention, when Warner discussed Iraq, he did not use the line that he used the previous weekend at the Democratic state party convention in Manchester N.H.: “Going out (of Iraq) without a plan is just as bad as going in without a plan.”

A Warner aide said the line was omitted because the Las Vegas speech was edited for length.

Warner does say in his speeches that the United States should give the Iraqi government only “months, not years” to impose order on the country and implies a prompt withdrawal of U.S. forces if Iraqi leaders fail to do that.

The Kos crowd remained silent when Warner said “we are all glad” to have seen al Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi killed last week by a U.S. air strike.

The crowd also sat silently during the part of Warner’s speech in which he discussed the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.