DENVER — Four years ago, Barack Obama was keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. He went on in November to take a Republican-held Senate seat by the biggest margin of any non-incumbent that year. He is returning to this year’s convention as the nominee for president of the United States.
Former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia isn’t openly pining for history to repeat itself — that would require an Obama defeat at the hands of John McCain — but as he delivered the Democrats’ keynote address last night he probably hoped his career would follow a similar trajectory. Though Jim Gilmore, his Republican opponent, isn’t exactly Alan Keyes, Warner is the Democrats’ surest Senate pickup this year. He has a proven record of winning not just in the D.C. spillover suburbs of northern Virginia but also in the southwestern part of the state that rejected his successor Tim Kaine and even Jim Webb.
The key difference between Obama and Warner is the latter’s more Democratic Leadership Council-style approach to winning elections. Warner has positioned himself toward the center on fiscal policy (massive tax hikes notwithstanding) and national security, which likely prevented him from competing in this year’s Democratic primaries. His relatively pro-business and moderately hawkish stances are out of favor in his party. In the era of the netroots, New Democrats are so 1992.
So much so that even before Warner addressed the delegates the Associated Press was predicting “Warner’s bipartisan tone could rankle Democrats.” “There may be parts of the speech that aren’t going to get a lot of applause,” Warner told the AP Monday, “but I’ve got to say what I believe will get our country back on the right path.” Democratic consultant Paul Begala, last seen fretting about “eggheads and African-Americans,” complained, “This isn’t the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.”
Marc Fisher of the Washington Post reported that many moderate Virginia Democrats support Warner “but have deep doubts about Obama” and may vote for McCain. The former governor hopes to hold onto these voters after the convention in Denver is over. “Warner made it clear that he has no intent of acting as a Democratic attack dog,” wrote Fisher.
Warner should have stuck with his original intent, because in the attack dog role he was a poodle. “People always ask me what’s my biggest criticism of President Bush,” he said. “I’m sure you all have your own. Here’s mine — it’s not just the policy differences , it’s the fact that this president never tapped into our greatest resource: the character and resolve of the American people.”
Don’t hold back, Mark.
The courageous appeals to bipartisanship rang similarly hollow. “I know we’re at a Democratic convention,” Warner intoned, “but if an idea works, it really doesn’t matter if it has an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to it.” He later touted his experience as governor with a 2-to-1 Republican legislature, proving that higher taxes are good whether they have an “R” or a “D” next to them.
Throughout the speech, the crowd was polite but mostly unmoved. Warner’s biggest applause lines were his call for 100-mile-per gallon hybrid vehicles built “with American technology and with American workers” and his observation that “if you can send a job to Bangalore, India, you can sure as heck send one to Danville, Virginia, and Flint, Michigan, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Peoria, Illinois.” He drew cheers when he argued, “In a global economy, you shouldn’t have to leave your home town to find a world-class job.”
“Yahoo!” shouted an older woman who turned out to be part of Warner’s Virginia cheering section. “He was a great governor,” she told me, “and we’re really hoping he can help put the state in play for Obama in November.”
It was a workmanlike speech quite unlike the red meat that followed. Channeling the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said, “With the 22 million new jobs and the budget surplus Bill Clinton left behind, George W. Bush came into office on third base and then he stole second. And John McCain cheered him every step of the way.”
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer worked the delegates into a frenzy with his call-and-response routine: “Can we afford four more years? (No!) Is it time for change? (Yes!) When do we need it? (Now!)”
By contrast, Warner tried to excite a liberal, partisan crowd by calling for the president to wage economic war on Middle East sponsors of terrorism and the Communist Chinese. “You can be soft-hearted or hard-headed — both are going to lead you to the same place,” he said.
Mark Warner will almost certainly be the next U.S. senator from Virginia. But based on his skills as an orator and his tenuous read on the Democratic Party’s mood, his remarks last night won’t lead him to the same place as the previous Democratic convention’s keynote speaker.