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In Allen’s Jeffersonian beliefs and record, “each strain of the party and conservatism can find something they like,” Scott Leake said. Allen lured businesses to Virginia with millions in tax incentives. He has voted for Bush’s tax cuts. He supports a marriage amendment in Virginia and assails activist judges.
Yet Allen’s identification with Jefferson may hit a little too close to home. Like Jefferson, Allen is full of contradictions. His social conservatism sometimes suffers when it conflicts with his libertarian sensibilities. Since his days as a gubernatorial candidate, he has refused to say whether he is pro-life or pro-choice, or whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. When he uses loaded language like “there should be reasonable moderation of the excesses of abortion,” no matter what he intends, most pro-lifers will hear “safe, rare, and legal.”
On stem cell research, Allen seems more poll-calibrated than principled. He opposes federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but said in an interview he “would not prohibit” private or state research on excess embryos created for in vitro fertilization. The federal government ought to pursue adult stem cell research, which is “actually helping dozens and dozens of maladies,” he said.
So far, his murkiness on life issues has made little practical difference. His voting record is far to the right of Democrats, and is rated 100 percent by National Right to Life. Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation of Virginia, which worked with Allen on these issues while he was governor, said that he “has certainly supported most of the issues that pro-family activists and advocates care about.” Allen notes that he has a “pro-life voting record” and “when in doubt” opts for life. In that regard, Allen is with the vast majority of the country, which supports partial birth abortion bans and parental notification or consent statutes. But the majority of Republican primary voters may want more of a pro-life commitment from Allen.
When it comes to federalism and fiscal policy, Allen has a mixed record. He voted against campaign finance “reform” and the bloated farm bill. He was one of 25 to 30 Republican senators opposing not-so-emergency spending additions to an emergency supplemental bill for the war on terror and hurricane relief (though he end up voting for the overall bill on May 4). He opposed the “Bridge to Nowhere” last year and argues that one of the most important issues facing the country is fiscal accountability: “preventing tax increases” and controlling “unnecessary spending.” To that end, he has dusted off a bill he sponsored as a congressman: a “Taxpayers Bill of Rights” composed of structural tweaks: a balanced budget amendment, line-item veto, a super-majority for large spending hikes, and a “paycheck penalty” against Congress when it can’t pass appropriations bills on time.
As helpful as these “circuit breakers” on spending may be, where has Allen fought government growth? When asked that question, he could only cite the Internet tax moratorium and an idea to eliminate the surgeon general’s office. In two interviews, he called the current budget “very tight and taut.”
His Democratic opponents suppose Allen’s loyal voting with the President will hurt him among liberals, but it may hurt him with conservatives even more. A vote for the prescription drug benefit, the largest expansion of federal entitlements since the Great Society, seems incongruous with Jeffersonian conservatism. Conceding that he hadn’t considered Jefferson’s views on it, Allen said Jefferson would have liked its provision for health savings accounts. As for the federal government subsidizing individual drug plans, “Since the federal government’s involved in medical care, why not modernize it and allow the advances of the last 30 or 40 years to be a part?” In that same vein, he voted for No Child Left Behind — a far cry from the Reaganite view that the Department of Education should be abolished. Like proponents of big government conservatism, Allen seems to accept that the federal government will provide health care and education — the question now is how market-based and efficient the solution will be.
Allen’s record may disappoint those looking for a more conservative successor to President Bush. As a Senate candidate, he supported an increase in the federal minimum wage. TAS’s Washington Prowler also reported at the time that Allen did not impress a Club for Growth meeting looking for a “Reaganesque economic speech.” One member said, “Allen was terrible. He was running away from every conservative issue you could think of.”
Despite Allen’s belief in Jeffersonian principles, he selectively applies them. Given their shared geographic and political history, he appears to like the idea of Jefferson. As Joseph Ellis argues in American Sphinx, American presidents from FDR to Bill Clinton have a tradition of “appropriating” Jefferson as their political icon. George Allen could be the next one.
IN THE END, voters in 2008 may not look so closely at George Allen’s substance. If he succeeds, he’ll owe it to his style. But a February speech before a large conservative crowd suggests a presidential campaign will be a challenge for Allen. As the keynote speaker at the Presidential Banquet of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, where he won the presidential straw poll with 22 percent, Allen let down many attendees. Apparently uncomfortable with such a large crowd, he had difficulty finding his rhythm. And though armed with an opinion and a football metaphor for nearly every conceivable topic, he lacked an overall cause for Americans to rally around. The American Spectator’s John Tabin commented afterward, “If Allen really is going to be the Republican nominee, he had better prepare for crowds that will cut him a lot less slack.”
Allen easily charms small groups in Virginia, while the presidential trail is made up of many events on the scale of CPAC. However, a recent Wednesday on Capitol Hill indicates there may be hope for Allen.
The Senator is in a hurry. There are votes in the Senate all day — still, he manages his office’s brisk business with a weary smile. Besides an evening trip to Richmond and our interview, he has to tape a Hardball segment. Substitute host David Gregory begins by asking Allen about Karl Rove’s grand jury testimony, and Allen’s face tells it all: quit wasting my time.
But when Gregory brings up Tony Snow becoming press secretary, Allen sees an opening to turn to his new pet issue: immigration. Snow offers valuable talk radio experience, Allen says, with a “pulse on what people in the real world think on issues such as immigration, on taxes, on spending.” Gregory asks what the White House should do to turn around the second term, and Allen sticks to immigration. “Number one, we need to secure our borders….This has been neglected for far too long. And there’s a consensus that we have a leaking border.”
While Allen didn’t engage the issue until this spring, he has shown remarkable political acumen in catching up and joining his fortunes with the popular position. Like many members of Congress, he caught an earful from constituents at town hall meetings and through over a thousand calls to his office — running about ten to one for tough border enforcement. So he indulged his populism. Even as he criticizes the President, he doesn’t demagogue the issue, or try to lead, but rather cites “a consensus.”
These instincts will serve him well in the next two years, if only Americans can learn who he is. As we leave the Hardball taping in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda, a man in his late 30s, in full tourist mode, approaches to introduce himself. “Senator… Rick Santorum!” Allen corrects him, “Allen. George Allen.” But within seconds they are both friendly, and the man asks for a photo with the Senator. If this is what it takes for Allen to win the presidency, one person at a time, he’ll have his work cut out for him.
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