MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Were the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary to be decided with a laugh meter rather than counted ballots, soon-to-be ex-Governor of Virginia Mark Warner might have the whole thing tied up already.
After a short, inexplicable welcoming speech last Friday by Lou D'Allesandro, wherein the New Hampshire State Senator explained that holding the event in Manchester, the "Queen City," was appropriate since "there are more queens in front of me than I've ever seen before in my whole life" (one assumes this won't be the Democrats' strategy for reaching out to Red State voters in '06, but who knows?), Warner took the microphone in front of an impressive standing room only crowd of about 200 and broke out the funny.
The Harvard Law School graduate joked about his 1996 senatorial bid ("It was Mark Warner versus John Warner, confused the heck out of everyone. I got the silver medal in that race"); his first stab at entrepreneurship ("I took my life savings -- $5,000 -- and invested it in a little energy start-up company and in six weeksâ€¦I helped that company go totally broke"); and his friends' reaction to his investment in Nextel in the early '80s, which would eventually make him a rich man. ("I'll always remember my law school classmates saying, 'Warner, you're so crazy. Who's going to want a car telephone?'")
Wide-smiled and infectiously effusive, Warner often guffawed along with the audience and they couldn't get enough of it. Such a large, enthusiastic crowd this far out from the primary is unusual. Although merely a case of one Democrat replacing another, Tim Kaine's victory has clearly buoyed liberal spirits and the Governor-elect was repeatedly referenced as Warner's "protege," a designation that would have been considerably less fortuitous for Warner if Kaine had lost.
Maintaining the status quo has allowed Warner to tout his biggest selling point -- a Blue Man success story from a Red State -- all the more. He is acutely aware of this, sneaking in asides such as "This in a state that is very red, the state where the Grover Norquist crowd is all coming from," whenever referencing his accomplishments in Virginia. He talked about how he brought a bluegrass band on the campaign trail and sponsored a NASCAR racer to woo rural Virginians "who hadn't voted for a Democrat in ages." The crowd leaned forward, listening intently, as if being told of an amulet that breaks the hypnotizing spell of neo-conservatism.
As with most ambitious, potential West Wing aspirants, Warner's political philosophy isn't anything groundbreaking; more an amalgamation of applause lines echoing the Ghost of Campaigns Past. In half an hour Warner managed to evoke shades of Howard Dean: "We can take back this country. I don't think we have the luxury of business as usual coming out of Washington"; Dick Gephardt: "If we can build it in Bangalore we should be able to build it in Martinsville, Virginia"; John McCain: "You've got to go to the American people with straight answers and straight talk"; Joe Lieberman: "I want to shift the debate from the old terms, liberal versus conservative, left versus right. My belief is it is future versus past"; John Kerry: "We need to look at how we truly defend our country and homeland in a way that's meaningful, not simply with color codes"; John Edwards: "I'm passionate about how the country moves forward and that we don't leave people behind." (All the 2004 candidates who demanded we leave people behind must really have baked Warner's noodle.) Oh, and Dennis Kucinich: "We need to take a fresh, bold look at alternative energy."
And what of the 2004 $1.6 billion tax hike he campaigned so hard for after promising not to raise taxes? That somehow gets spun into a victory for conservatism.
"What we were able to do is what the true definition of a conservative is, which is someone who pays their bills and meets their obligations," he said, suggesting someone should lend him a Russell Kirk tome or two.
FOR SOMEONE WHO SHOULD ostensibly be courting the grassroots, liberal wing of the Democratic Party, though, Warner was refreshingly candid on a handful of issues. He said, for instance, that he didn't know enough about the Kyoto treaty to know whether the United States should be a full signatory to it, failing to blindly embrace that bit of liberal orthodoxy even as he rattled off some of the other happy go lucky environmental speak. Likewise, when it came to Iraq, Warner said President Bush needed to explain his plan, but dismissed any talk of a withdrawal timetable.
"I don't believe with an election three weeks off in Iraq that today is right time to set an arbitrary date and say regardless of what happens we'll be out," he said, prompting at least a few sighs in an otherwise overwhelmingly friendly crowd.
Yet this isn't to say Warner is immune to the modern Democratic Party's self-aggrandizing mythology.
"Whenever challenges have come up in this country -- and this is why we should be so extraordinarily proud as Democrats -- whenever the real tough challenges came to our country in the '90s, '60s, '70s, with Franklin Roosevelt, it has been the Democratic Party that has been willing to make that call to arms for America," he said. "Lord knows we need that call again now and it ought to be us who lead the way."
Apparently that period in the 1980s where we faced down the communist menace under threat of nuclear Armageddon or our current decade's struggle with Islamofascism have not risen to the same level as those "real tough challenges" Democrats saved us from in the 1990s. And what was Jimmy Carter's call to arms again? Hopefully Warner has something better than that planned. But in the meantime, I'll be damned if the guy can't tell a joke.
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