Former Virginia governor Mark Warner was in New Hampshire last weekend trying very badly to capture the insurgent-outsider mantle that Howard Dean almost rode to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. The fact is, he has to: there are too many powerful establishment Democrats eyeing the job for him to succeed any other way.
TAKING ROOT: Former Virgina Governor Mark Warner wants to be the next Howard Dean — minus the screaming!
Warner has many of the credentials to claim the role. Never having been a senator, congressman, or administration figure, he can portray himself as a Washington outsider. A successful businessman, he is no lifetime politician. He has been willing to publicly challenge and criticize the Democratic Party establishment. He has not only courted the progressive-grassroots community, he has hired a prominent “netroots” leader, and co-opted some of the language and tactics of the movement.
The effort has reaped some success already: although barely a blip on the general public’s radar screen, he rates very well in online presidential-preference polls taken in the progressive blogosphere, and he’s getting high marks among many activists in the Granite State.
Warner has done this despite two significant barriers to acceptance. For one, he is among the most conservative of the likely candidates for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
For another, he has to live down the ice-sculpture incident.
That “incident” occurred in early June, at the YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas. Several ’08 wannabes flew in to ingratiate themselves with the 1000 or so liberal bloggers in attendance, but Warner made the biggest splash. He hosted a lavish $75,000 affair held at the top of the Stratosphere Tower, leading Arianna Huffington to name him the “clear winner” of the convention.
The lavishness, however, caused a stir. The bloggers were treated to sumptuous spreads of shrimp and sushi, rides on the Stratosphere’s roller coaster, Elvis and Blues Brothers impersonators, and free drinks aplenty — including martinis mixed through ice sculptures.
Some appreciated that Warner respected the netroots enough to treat them as he would other important and influential interest groups. But many saw it as a peek into the gross, phony, insider world where politicians seek support not through issues and ideas, but through favors and food.
“The harder you try, the less authentic you seem to be,” says Josh Green, co-founder of 2020 Democrats, a Boston-based national progressive organization
Warner is well aware of his missteps. He brought up the ice-sculpture incident, unprompted, in a brief interview with the Phoenix last weekend during his most recent trip to New Hampshire, where he was stumping on behalf of local ’06 candidates. Although he laughed about the “over-the-top party” at the Stratosphere, Warner was clearly seeking to minimize the damage. “I don’t know who ordered the ice sculpture,” he said.
The incident surely didn’t kill Warner’s chances to woo the grassroots, but you get only so many chances to prove yourself. And New Hampshire, of course, is the ultimate testing ground of a politician’s authenticity — certainly more so than Las Vegas.
From DLC to agent of change
Warner has a terrific personal story for a politician. The first in his family to graduate college, he got a law degree from Harvard but then went into business as an entrepreneur. His first two start-ups failed miserably, but his third became the cell-phone giant Nextel. He expanded his wealth as a venture capitalist, and made a couple of failed attempts at political office before becoming governor of heavily Republican Virginia in 2001. “I stand before you as a living embodiment of someone who’s been blessed to live the American Dream,” Warner said in a speech last week to about 225 Democratic activists in Stoddard, New Hampshire.
He’s a pretty good candidate as well, with a physical resemblance to Robert F. Kennedy and an ability to connect with voters without coming across as too slick. “He’s tall and handsome,” says Bonnie Mitchell, a New Hampshire state representative. “He looks at you like Bill Clinton — he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room.”
Warner has formulated an appealing stump speech, heavy on JFK-esque calls for national, communal sacrifice in the name of “transformative,” rather than incremental change.
Talk of self-sacrifice and tough roads ahead appeal to many grassroots activists, says Green, because it sounds more authentic than the typical “we can have it all” pandering that has come to be associated with the faux optimism and dishonesty coming from both sides of the aisle. “People are hungry for truth-talking.” Straight talk may count for more than ideology this time around, he says.
But Warner runs into trouble during post-speech question-and-answer periods, when party activists typically ask about their pet issues. In New Hampshire last weekend, he was asked about Iraq, gay rights, and funding social programs while balancing the budget. Warner is seldom on their side on these or other major liberal issues. He opposes gay marriage, supports a ban on "partial-birth abortions" (except in cases where the health or life of the mother is endangered), supports the death penalty, approved gun-lobby legislation, favors welfare reform, and is a staunch believer in "fiscal discipline." Warner has no history of opposing the Iraq war, and he opposes a timetable for troop withdrawal. “We’ve got to get out of Iraq,” he recently told the Phoenix, “but we’ve got to get out with a plan.”