Should Warner Regret Not Going For The White House?
Mark Warner isn't running against Barack Obama, but he's beating his fellow Democrat by a stunning 25 or so points. The former governor is trouncing his Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate, Jim Gilmore, by upward of 30 points in recent polls. Obama, in contrast, holds a slim lead over John McCain in most Virginia polls.
Warner bounds around the state on what looks like a victory lap, diving across enemy lines to embrace Republican ideas, lamenting the failure of the presidential candidates to get specific about our dire economic situation. Obama plays it cautious, having seemingly tucked away for safekeeping the eagerness to break the mold that got him this close to the White House.
Obviously, a Senate candidate riding a comfortable lead feels more freedom to say what's on his mind than a presidential hopeful locked in a tight race. But that's the point, isn't it? The bland packaging and petty sniping of presidential politics only exacerbate voter cynicism and frustration.
When Warner says that a President Obama's first move should be to demonstrate that he can and will cut way back on spending, Virginia audiences love the idea of a politician reaching into the other team's toolbox. When he talks about collecting a dozen or so senators in a "bipartisan coalition of radical centrists" who would solicit ideas from both parties and break away from the just-say-no polarization symbolized by the cable TV shoutfests, heads nod.
And when he explains how we got into this mess -- being careful to assess blame on Republicans, Democrats, business leaders and ordinary people alike -- crowds break into murmured wondering about why McCain and Obama don't talk like this.
Part of this cross-party appeal is classic Warner. Even in fast-changing Virginia, a Democrat is a fool if he doesn't try to demonstrate an affinity for some traditionally Republican values.
But this time around, Warner doesn't need to prove himself as a NASCAR-loving, pro-gun kind of Democrat. This is the first Virginia campaign in many years in which guns, gays, marriage, the death penalty and illegal immigration aren't playing the role of distracters-in-chief. We've finally learned what it takes to knock the state's Republicans off their game of deploying hot-button social issues to steer attention from the real work of government: a cratering economy and an unpopular war.
It's not that Warner is running against Obama; he always mentions his support for his party's presidential candidate. Yet he manages to find ways to tell potential McCain-Warner voters that that's okay. Heck, even Warner's press secretary, Emily Kryder, drives a car with McCain and Warner stickers on the back. (It's her fiance who's for McCain, she hastens to explain. She's a loyal Democrat.)
Over a burger and shake at Kline's Freeze in Manassas Park, Warner says he'd like to see Obama get more granular: "You have to translate the macro to very specific things, like when I ran for governor and talked about career and technical education, or when President Clinton talked about national service."
Warner believes that voters want clear evidence that candidates really would push toward the center. "The John McCain of 2000 reflected that, unlike the McCain of this year," he says. "The original attraction people felt to Senator Obama was not just his energy and intellect but that he was talking about that common ground we all have."
Never much of an orator, Warner has found a way to stir audiences, saying that what's been most disappointing about the Bush administration is not the botched war or reckless management of the economy but that the president "hasn't trusted our strongest asset, the character and resolve of the American people. If, after 9/11, the president had said, 'We're going to get off foreign oil in five years,' people would have said, 'Where do I sign up?' If, after Katrina, the president had said, 'We must rebuild American infrastructure,' people would have said, 'How do I do my part?' "
Again, audiences ask why McCain and Obama don't say such things.
"Too much is being defined by the loudest voices on either end," Warner says. "For example, there's something I would like to hear both Obama and McCain talk about more. It's not sexy, but we need a plan to rebuild our infrastructure -- roads, rail, broadband."
Does Warner regret having pulled out of the presidential race so early? He smiles, starts to say something, then waves himself off.
"No," he says, and then he can't contain himself, and the smile takes over his face, and he laughs and gets up from the table. "Gotta go."
"Potomac Confidential" returns next Thursday at noon, its regular time, at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
By Marc Fisher |
October 9, 2008; 9:44 AM ET
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