Monday, June 05, 2006

Warner and Feingold

C-Span's Road to the Whitehouse showcased Russ Feingold and Mark Warner speaking in NH to that state's Democratic Convention on Saturday.

The short version: I thought Warner was very, very impressive.

Neither speaker mentioned immigration, and neither referred explicitly to gay marriage or abortion. While both speeches managed to hit some similar themes, such as the failure of President Bush to unite the country with a call to shared sacrifice after 9-11, the speeches were remarkably different from one another, a distinction particularly telling given that the Warner speech appeared to immediately succeed Feingold's in order at the convention (although maybe this was a C-Span effect, appearing to make the speeches appear consecutively).

Feingold covered most of the outrage issues: No Child Left Behind; the Iraq War; the abuses of the Patriot Act; the NSA wiretaps and the Constitutional disregards more broadly; the demolition of FEMA and the Katrina debacle; the failure of Senate Democrats to lead on healthcare; a call for redeploying troops in Iraq. His remarks about the Iraq war, his call to redeploy the troops, and a bold statement for universal health insurance got the most cheers. Not a bad speech by any means, but it seemed to lack something. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what.

Then came Warner. He started off with his personal background, college, law degree, tour of duty with the NDC, and then a turn towards an entrepreneurial career that started off poorly before finding success in the car telephone business and then his election as Governor of Virginia. It was a short introduction and life summary that had similarities to that told by John Edwards, but it sounded less syrapy and Warner's transition from up-bringing to public service focused more on his gratefulness for his opportunity to fullfill The American Dream than on Edwards' fight on behalf of the downtrodden.

Warner then covered his single-term as VA Governor (by law, the Governor of Virginia cannot succeed himself), highlighting his approach and successes with taxes, the state budget, education, and technological advancement, specifically the expansion of broadband across the state. Warner closed his Virginia Story with what he said was the highlight of his term in office: bringing software computer jobs to one of the state's backwaters, Lebanon, VA, via a program his state created to help communities hold on to their future resources--their educated children.

From there Warner launched into an analysis of the state of the union, with a particular focus on ensuring the nation's competitiveness in a rapidly changing global economy. This was Warner's unifying theme, what we in the pundit world and political community think of as the Vision Thing. Warner sounds like a man who's beginning to put things together. When he talked about education, he talked about the liabilities of the country's schools falling behind in regards to math and science. The competitive risk inherent in falling math and science know-how helped smooth his transition to the discussion of "wedge issues". Warner called for greater R&D funding, the advancement of stem-cell research, and a bold criticism of those disputing the theory of evolution. The latter was a particularly emphatic line that surprised me, given Warner's reputation as a centrist known for reaching out to rural voters in Virginia. Furthermore, when Warner referred to Americans without health insurance, he did so mostly from a national well-being and competitiveness posture, as opposed to the more moralistic, economically redistributive norms of most candidates now and in the past. This seems like a better appeal to me, one that aims to arouse the country's national concerns and not limit the debate to arguments about dividing and reshuffling the economic pie.

On foreign policy, Warner recognized the differences of opinion on Iraq but stressed the fact that while the Iraq war was not originally about preventing Iranian expansion and containing Al Qaeda, both of those challenges were the result of the Iraq invasion, hinting that simply redeploying the troops wouldn't be a cure-all. Warner also critiqued the current administration for "dividing our friends and unifying our enemies." Expect to hear that line more and more in the days ahead.

Warner got some digs in at the president, but his speech was noted mostly for its forward looking, non-ideological approach. He contrasted Democrats with Republicans by contending that Democrats were the party that were always looking a few years ahead, and were thus best able to lead the country into the future.

Most of what Warner had to say I had heard him say before, or had seen printed somewhere, but it was woven together in a unifying rhetoric that I hadn't recognized before. Both his tone, style and substance were very effective I thought. More than any other candidate I've heard so far, Warner is constructing a visionary campaign. While this is important for Warner's own prospects and the party's in '08, Warner's framework on national competitiveness and facing the challenges of the future, both domestic and internation, were a subtle but strong contrast to that put forward by Republicans and could thus provide an important blueprint for Democrats to follow beyond Warner regardless of his candidacy's outcome.

A few remaining, random thoughts:

Warner's speech and outlining vision bears some similarities to The Common Good debate that circulated among lefty bloggers in April (although Warner did not use that term explicitly). I shared some reservations about that philosophy here. Despite what I think are the philosophy's limitations, in it's Warner rendition, it could be useful for correcting what most political observers think is the Democrat's achilles heal: it's lack of a bold, unifying, national agenda. As I pointed out in the beginning, Warner didn't speak on immigration or mention gay marriage or abortion, issues that will continue to be hot-button ones in the months ahead, so how he approaches the conflicts embedded in those issues will go a long way to influencing his prospective candicacy.

Another thing Warner emphasized was that in Virginia he worked with members of both parties to address the state's problems and was ready to pursue good policy recommendations regardless of whether they came from those with a D or an R besides their names. Now, it should be pointed out that many governors have said this (including the current president) and that in Virginia, Warner had little choice but to make common ground with the Republicans that ran the state legislature. What was different is that Warner said this at a Democratic State Party Convention, where such bipartisanship might be downplayed. I have a hard time envisioning any Republican candidate appearing at a state GOP convention and emphasizing his outreach to the other party. What this suggests to me is that (1) Republicans are much more ideological and partisan than Democrats; (2) that Republican Partisanship stems from either (a) its self-confidence that, occupying the majority, it doesn't need to expand its coalition or reach beyond its conservative identifying partisans and groups to unify the country or (b) it's arrogance that it doesn't need or want Democratic input. We've probably seen, in the form of conference bills and other processes, how the Republicans feel about expanding their appeal and unifying the country.

At the same time, Warner made clear his interest in electing Democrats in NH and across the country. And for those of us worried about Warner's Democratic commitment, his work on behalf of the party's candidates along with his aggressive slapdown of the anti-science forces in the Republican Party are a promising harbinger of positive things to come.

On a side note, and one that may pertain to the 2008 Democratic ticket, another state's Democrat seems to be reaping the rewards of an opposition party beginning to crack-up over its cultural "wedge" issues. Maybe the much feared culture war and warriors are beginning to commit suicide. Warner's approach to wedge issues could bear similar fruit.

1 comment:

yellowdogjz said...

Fantastic job summarizing and commenting on Warner's NH speech.

I lived in Virginia as a grad student during most of his governorship, and a few things really struck me about him.

1) He knows politics: On the state budget he managed to get the moderate Republicans and the Grover-Norquist Republicans hissing at each other rather than at him and the Democrats, and with a GOP majority in the legislature built a budget coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats. It was fun to watch.

2) He's the genuine deal as far as not setting off the trip wires of less-educated voters. He doesn't come across as talking down or condescending. I met many people in that category who wouldn't have considered voting for Kerry over Bush but who liked Warner a lot. His focus on community colleges, vo-techs, and VA Tech over U. VA won him a lot of support.

3) He's got the gift of coming across as positive and energetic and optimistic pretty much all the time. He wore easily as governor because of that even though there were some tough political fights. It was postive-forward-looking Warner versus the sour-puss-constipated Republicans.