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Insider Interview: Sen. George Allen

George Allen is regularly compared (flatteringly and unflatteringly) to the current commander-in-chief, but the Republican senator from Virginia sees himself more in the mold of another GOP president -- Ronald Reagan.

Sen. George Allen
Can Sen. George Allen win the White House running on a platform of "common sense Jeffersonian conservative principles"? (Getty Images)

Allen first met Reagan in 1966, the year when Reagan won his first term as governor of California and when Allen's father was in his first year as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. Reagan attended Rams practices, and even after the Allen family moved to Virginia so dad could take over as Redskins coach, Allen was still enthralled by the Great Communicator.

"I liked his optimism. Obviously, I liked his philosophy, his ideas. But I just liked his personality," explained Allen during an hour-long interview in his Senate office. "[Reagan] was one who very much embodied Jeffersonian principles facing the challenges of his time."

Allen is hoping that Republican primary voters in 2008 will find many of those same qualities embodied in him -- the second coming of Reagan rather than simply four more years of another Republican named George.

While there is no question that Allen -- stylistically and philosophically -- resembles President Bush, he is also careful to highlight several major differences he has had with the current administration, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq.

Allen favored holding elections in Iraq sooner, saying "nobody likes to be occupied -- its human nature." He believes that if elections had been held sooner, "all of this process of self-governance would have been better."

He said he also parted ways with the Bush administration on its initial strategy for training Iraqi troops -- keeping the trainers and the trainees separate. "To the extent you're living and breathing with the security forces, it is much more effective," Allen said. "It's much more difficult, it's much more dangerous and it takes a special person to be able to do this, but if that were done I think we would have trained up more Iraqis for their security forces sooner."

Allen, however, went on to praise the White House for recognizing this problem and making a change in how U.S. forces trained Iraqi troops. And he remains a staunch supporter of the overall conflict and the larger global war on terrorism, dismissing Democratic critics with the oft-repeated mantra: "Second-guessing is not a strategy."

In fact, Allen has a knack for partisan rhetoric and gamesmanship, but he is rarely -- if ever -- tagged with the reputation as a negative politician because of his down-home manner and generally sunny disposition.

In one breath Allen dismisses those Democrats who believe American troops should be immediately withdrawn as "tucking tail and running and clearly losing." In the next, he warns not to lump all Democrats together -- "you try not to say all, you have to qualify."

The defeat of Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle in 2004, he said, was a "political object lesson" about the dangers of obstruction (Allen helped oversee that GOP victory as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee). Some lawmakers learned from Daschle's defeat, he said, noting that several Senate Democrats voted for Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s Supreme Court nomination instead of siding with their leadership's efforts to organize a filibuster.

Blending partisanship and populism has served Allen well throughout his political career. As Allen regularly points out, he held the same seat that Thomas Jefferson occupied in the Virginia House of Delegates. After spending nearly a decade in the legislature, Allen ran and won a special election for the 7th congressional district in 1991. A year later, Allen was out of Congress after a Democratic redistricting plan placed him in the same district with Rep. Tom Bliley (R). Rather than challenge the incumbent, Allen opted for a run for governor in 1993.

He faced off against state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry (D), who began the race as the clear frontrunner. Allen walloped her 58 percent to 41 percent. Term-limited out of office after a single term, Allen immediately began planning to challenge Sen. Chuck Robb (D). Robb had suffered considerable political damage in the early 1990s and was no match for the widely popular Allen, who led the 2000 contest throughout -- claiming a 52 percent to 48 percent victory.

After chairing the NRSC during the 2004 cycle, Allen made several moves that confirmed chatter that he is considering a presidential bid in 2008. The most noticeable was hiring top GOP campaign operative Dick Wadhams as his Senate chief of staff. Wadhams is the the man who managed Sen. John Thune's (R) 2004 victory over Daschle.

To win the nomination in 2008, Allen will need to convince conservatives that he is an acceptable messenger for their issues agenda. The guiding principles of Allen's political philosophy don't appear to be rooted in social and cultural concerns, however, making him a somewhat of odd fit for conservative voters in Iowa, South Carolina and other early primary and caucus states.

Asked to define conservatism, Allen said: "Trust free people and free enterprise as opposed to meddling, burdensome government." He added that "heritage" and "tradition" are also important components of conservatism but criticized those within the party who "are not wanting" to change. "I think you always have to be innovating and adapting and improving," he added. "You can't stay the same."

There is little question that tax and spending issues are the animating forces in Allen's political life. Allen is a strong advocate of the line-item veto, a power he enjoyed during his time as Virginia governor, and he was (and is) a staunch supporter of President Bush's tax cuts.

On taxes, Allen isn't afraid to buck the consensus view. He maintains that a major Virginia tax increase shepherded by Mark Warner (another ex-governor and oft-mentioned 2008 presidential candidate) was the wrong thing to do, despite the kudos that Warner won afterward. "If you look at the surpluses Virginia has [now], I think it kind of indicates [that former Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder] and I were correct that such large, massive tax increases weren't necessary," he said.

Overall, the best example of this free-will, free-market conservatism that Allen claims as his model is (you guessed it) none other than Ronald Reagan. Whether Republican primary voters see Allen in the Reagan mold remains to be seen. But it seems nearly a foregone conclusion that Allen will try to follow Reagan path's onto the national stage.

Probed on his presidential aspirations, Allen said he has been urged to make the race by a number of people, including many veterans of the Reagan administration. "You never know the future, but no matter what I'm doing I'm going to be advocating these common sense Jeffersonian conservative principles," he said.

Read the full transcript of The Fix's interview with Sen. Allen.

Archive: Insider Interview with Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 27, 2006; 10:07 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Insider Interview , Republican Party  
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