Politics & Policy

24-Hour Partisanship Bug

Why did Mark Warner give the Democrats' keynote address?

Denver — At first glance, Mark Warner seemed like a natural choice to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. He’s almost certain to win this year’s Senate race in Virginia. His victory in 2001 launched the Democrats’ good run in the commonwealth in recent years. He was popular for much of his term, helped carry Tim Kaine to victory as his successor, and still has a high approval rating.

But when one considers the traditional role of the keynote speech . . . he’s a bit of an odd duck. It’s as if the GOP chose Olympia Snowe to go out and tear the Democrats a new one.

#ad#Warner is sometimes considered a “Conservative Democrat,” but in fact, he’s very much a small-c conservative Democrat.

He won in 2001 by calling himself a “fiscal conservative” and pledging not to raise the income or sales taxes. He promised, as National Journal put it, “an end to old-style politics, regional divisions, partisan bickering and personal attacks.”

On his tax pledge, he lied, of course, ultimately raising taxes by $1.5 billion (with the acquiescence of a Republican-controlled legislature). But because of Virginia’s odd one-election-and-you’re-out term limit rule, Warner never had to face the voters for breaking his word.

But as governor, Warner rarely forgot that he headed a commonwealth that had recently been solidly Republican, with the GOP dominating statewide races. He chose his battles carefully. He never crossed the NRA, and rarely touched any controversial social issues. He bragged of eliminating “more than 50 agencies, boards, and commissions — and thousands of positions in state government.” He spent a lot of time on unglamorous, noncontroversial good-government initiatives, criticizing state agencies for using “outdated business practices.” It’s not often you hear a Democratic governor bragging, “we are beginning to manage our real estate portfolio like a business would,” as he did in 2005.

And Warner, a high profile member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has kept to his mantra that he is completely focused on results and doesn’t care about party identification. His current Senate ads feature Republican state legislators praising his reaching across the aisle, and he pledges to clean up “the mess in Washington” — one that presumably is at least partially the fault of the current Congressional leadership. In an era where liberal bloggers want Democratic candidates to wear their party ID on their sleeve with pride, Warner seems allergic to identifying himself by his party.

All of this is fine, but it makes him an odd choice as keynote speaker. The keynote address traditionally is one of the highlights of the convention, the one that defines the party, its values, and its agenda with soaring and inspiring rhetoric. Sure, the speech is often a presidential stepping stone. But the reason it is such is that it’s a test run for a public official to say, “this is what we stand for, and this is why we should lead, and this is why you should choose us instead of the other guys.”

It’s at the heart of what makes most of the memorable speeches so memorable. Even Obama’s in 2004, which spent a lot of time about bridging differences, noted that the “blue states” don’t follow the stereotype, worshipping an “awesome God” and coaching Little League, and that voters in “red states” agreed with Democrats’ positions on “federal agents poking around in our libraries” and tolerance of homosexuals.

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Mario Cuomo in 1984: “We Democrats must unite so that the entire nation can unite, because surely the Republicans won’t bring this country together. Their policies divide the nation into the lucky and the left-out, into the royalty and the rabble. The Republicans are willing to treat that division as victory.”

Tom Kean in 1988: “Those liberal Democrats are trying to hide more than the colors of our flag — you see they’re trying to hide their true colors. They want higher taxes. But they won’t say so. They want to weaken America. But they won’t admit it. You see liberal Democrats believe Washington should manage dreams for all Americans. And Republicans believe Americans should have the freedom to achieve our dreams ourselves. Republicans believe that if liberty is threatened anywhere, it is threatened everywhere.”

#ad#Or it can be as straightforward as Phil Gramm in 1992, “To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Give us the tools and we will finish the job. Give us a Republican Congress and we will put our people back to work and we will put criminals in jail where they belong.”

Every keynote speech has to say, ‘this is why we’re right and the opposition is wrong.’ And before he gave his speech, Warner heard flak from Democrats when it was reported “the crux” of his speech would be “talking about working together with Republicans and the lessons and success he had doing that in Virginia.”

In the end, Warner stepped up and took a swing, as needed: “John McCain promises more of the same — a plan that would explode the deficit that will be passed on to our kids. No real strategy to invest in our crumbling infrastructure. And he would continue spending $10 billion a month in Iraq.” In fact, he may have offered one of the fairest critiques of President Bush we’ll hear from the podium this week, contending that after 9/11, that the president should have asked more from Americans in dealing with the problems before the country.

But he also struck the bipartisan notes. He talked about, as governor, working with “a whole lot of good folks who didn’t see themselves as either Democrats or Republicans, but as Virginians.”

He said, “We need leaders who will appeal to use not as Republicans or Democrats, but first and foremost as Americans. I spent 20 years in business. If you ran a company whose only strategy was to tear down the competition, it wouldn’t last long. So why is this wisdom so hard to find in Washington? I know we’re at the Democratic convention, but if an idea works, it really doesn’t matter if it has an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to it.” You couldn’t hear crickets, but it’s clear that wasn’t a huge applause line.

And he said, “this election isn’t about liberal vs. conservative. It’s not about left and right.” (Yes, it is.)

It will be an interesting transition for the guy who just detailed the superiority of the Democrats at length on national television to go right back home and campaign as the guy who can reach across the aisle.

With a contrast that glaring and awkward, Virginians might start urging him to go back to bragging about managing the state’s real-estate portfolio.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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