Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Mark Warner vs. George Allen

Professor Larry Sabato will tell us in 2007 whether they ran, who won and why. But for a look ahead, we asked Paul Goldman, our fearless prognosticator, to handicap the odds in 2003.


Gov. Mark R. Warner has been criticized in some circles for angling to be on the 2004 Democratic presidential ticket. Some say he is dreaming, others that he risks becoming Estes Kefauver, the guy who won the VP prize in 1956, only to see the man he beat for the nomination come out the big winner four years later.

I take a different view of Warner's national ambitions: to wit, why not? As I will show below, winning the Presidency, or the Vice-Presidency, is far more a matter of timing than anything else as will be showed below. This is not intended as a knock on anyone, past or future, in terms of what they may or may not have achieved in office, but only a statement of  the historical record.

FACT: Historically, no incumbent Democratic senator, or member of the House of Representatives, has ever beaten a sitting Republican President. There have been some legendary Democrats on Capitol Hill in that 143 year period, giants of history. But none were able to win.

Yet four Democratic governors - Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey in 1912, Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York in 1932, ex-chief executive Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976, and Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992 - have defeated sitting GOP presidents trying for a second term. Wilson and Roosevelt served only four years, and thus started running for President before the ink was dry on their first budget. If you search the records, there is little evidence that their records as Governor played a major role in their victories, since only Clinton served more than four years.

Trust me: Every sitting Democratic governor in the nation knows this history, has thought about it at times, some more, some less and they know these victories owed a huge debt to substantial dissatisfaction with the incumbent president either in the country or within the GOP. They are looking at Howard Dean, the ex-Governor of Vermont, and saying to themselves, in the words of the hit song for Billy Ray Cyrus: It could have been me.

Timing, timing, timing.

In 1928, New York Gov. Al Smith was generally considered the best governor in recent American history. But he ran four years too early, allowing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his good friend, protege and nominator at
the 1928 Democratic National Convention, to move up from Lt. Governor to the Mansion in Albany. Within a year, FDR was already laying the groundwork to push Smith aside and win the 1932 nomination for himself.

It worked, leading to a great rift between Smith and Roosevelt. Feeling betrayed, Smith opposed FDR's re-election, and the two men got back together as political allies of sorts only due to WW II. If Smith had run in 1932, he might well have become the first Catholic president of the United States.

In 1956, Senator John F. Kennedy foolishly ran for the vice presidential nomination at the Democratic convention against the advice of his advisors. For the only time in modern history, the presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, refused to make the selection, deferring to the delegates. Fortunately, JFK narrowly lost; otherwise, Dwight Eisenhower's landslide re-election victory would have made the Massachusetts Senator unelectable in 1960.

Timing, timing, timing.

Virginia native Woodrow Wilson was a sure loser in 1912 until former President Teddy Roosevelt made the boy from Staunton a sure winner with his third-party Bull Moose run against former protege and then White House tenant William Howard Taft. An almost certain Taft landslide re-election became a plurality win for Governor Wilson, who then went on to get a second term in 1916 despite having gone to bed that night believing he had lost California and thus the election.

Six decades later, President Gerald Ford started 30 points behind unknown Jimmy Carter in the general election. The Georgian had won the Democratic nomination in large part because he scored an early success in the Iowa caucuses, which only the press had taken seriously. The subsequent publicity gave the unknown peanut farmer a huge boost. Carter's gubernatorial term was best known for his having hung a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King in the statehouse a few weeks before leaving office. 

As for 1992, thinking the Gulf War made President Bush a sure winner, Al Gore decided not to run. Other Democratic heavyweights, including Mario Cuomo, reached the same conclusion. What they didn't see, as Howard Dean does in 2003 as some of us did in 1991: Give me an incumbent and the perception of a bad economy, and I will give you a White House in big trouble.

Once again in this 2004 cycle, the conventional wisdom said another Bush was going to war and his poll ratings would rise to 90 percent and he would be unbeatable. Yet war fever usually runs its own course, pushed by events. But a lingering economic illness often takes a new doctor, as far as the patient -- or, more precisely, those losing patience -- see it.

Timing, timing, timing.

Every Democratic Governor in America is thinking: When people are angry at Washington, voters historically look to outsiders. Again, Wilson, FDR and Carter were basically one-term governors, not running on their gubernatorial records. Even Governor Clinton, who was among the nation's longest-serving chief executives, got elected on the anti-Bush environment.

The truth is, modern presidential elections are not focused in any major way on any candidate's gubernatorial record, any more than they are on the record of a sitting senator.

Today's presidential politics is as much about ambition as it is about competence. Like they say about the lottery, you have to be in it to win it. Ambition is not a dirty word in presidential politics: It is your entry fee.

The same logic applies to governors of Virginia. Timing, timing, timing.

Linwood Holton was the first Republican governor of the modern, two-party era. But he alienated many Republicans, and so in 1978, when the GOP was looking to fine a new senate nominee after the tragic death of Dick Obenshain, the party turned to John Warner. By all rights, that nomination, and that senate seat, should have gone to Gov. Holton, the guy who put the GOP on Virginia's political map.

The next governor, Mills Godwin, never really hankered for a career in Washington. Yet he owed his singular achievement -- being elected governor twice, once for each major party --  to some political risk taking. First, in 1964, he joined the Johnson-for-President campaign when the person in charge of the Virginia Democratic Party was Sen. Harry Byrd, not a big fan of Johnson's support for civil rights. Godwin was a virulent segregationist, but
he sensed Johnson would carry Virginia and was no big fan of Byrd's. Godwin gambled and won. Nearly a decade later, Godwin switched parties and ran for governor on the GOP ticket. His re-election was no sure thing: The polls had him behind by 10 percent with only a few weeks to go. But he got a few breaks and won in a squeaker.

The next governor was John Dalton, the third straight Republican, and the one with the most post-gubernatorial potential of them all. Well-liked by his party and even Democrats despite a strong partisan streak, the youthful Dalton seemed a sure bet for either the senate or a second gubernatorial term until cancer tragically cut short his life.

Next came the first Democratic governor in the modern age, Charles Robb. Having married LBJ's daughter, the former marine had already plotted a path back to the White House, only this time as the lessee, not the son-in-law. So at the first opportunity upon leaving the Governor's Mansion, he ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent GOP Senator Paul Trible.

Trible had won the job six years before because he had the nerve to declare for the Republican nomination despite admonitions from party elders that he would ruin his career because sitting Senator Harry Byrd Jr. had not yet ruled out another run for the job. By the time Byrd said he was retiring, Trible already had the GOP nomination sewed-up, leaving the bigger players out in the cold. 

Today, it is fashionable to say Robb was a sure winner against Trible. But this rose-colored view misses the reality: 1988 was a presidential election year, and as we know, Virginia went strongly for Republican George Bush. Moreover, there was a lot of controversy swirling around Robb, which was known at the time, but had not yet made it into the newspapers.

So, Robb was making a gutsy move: If he'd lost, his national political career might have ended before it truly got started. He gambled and won, holding the seat for 12 years.

And who beat Robb finally? None other than former Gov. George Allen, who is also plotting a run for president or vice-president in 2008.

True, he will deny it. But so has Sen. Hillary Clinton. Republicans say she is just staying silent until her 2006 Senate re-election campaign is over. The same logic, it could be said, applies also to Mr. Allen, who also is keeping the national noises to a minimum until he clears the same hurdle.

As I see it, Sen. Allen would make a credible candidate for national office in 2008, as will Mrs. Clinton. They are smart, they are political tough, and they are very ambitious.

And that brings us to Gov. Warner.

Ideally, the governor would like to run for an open seat in 2008. This would require that Sen. John Warner not seek another term. Gov. Warner has tangled with Sen. Warner once already over this particular senate seat.

I don't think the governor wants a rematch. By 2008, Sen. Warner will have served 30 years. He may want to retire, or perhaps become Defense Secretary, since he would be the perfect choice regardless of who sits in the Oval office.

Timing, timing, timing.

But there is good chance that come 2006, John Warner will still be in the senate and keeping his 2008 plans to himself.

At which point, ex-Gov. Warner will have to make a choice. His term ends in January of that year and, assuming he leaves in good standing, will face the Chuck Robb choice.

Sen. George Allen figures to be a far tougher opponent than Paul Trible. Indeed, I see an Allen vs. Warner match-up resembling the legendary 1984
contest between Gov. Jim Hunt and Senator Jesse Helms in North Carolina.

Helms was about the toughest campaigner the South has seen in recent times. He started after Hunt from the beginning of that year, putting the governor on the spot on tough issues with those infamous "Where Do You Stand, Jim?" commercials. It was brutal.

Gov. Warner has proven adept at the Virginia Two-step. Mr. Allen is more of a foot-stomping kind of politician, the kind Warner has never faced.

Allen could be expected to raise at least $25 million dollars for that race, knowing his career is on the line.

Warner, by contrast, would know that he could survive a loss to Allen and still make a comeback, both in the state and at the national level.

Moreover, my sources indicate that Warner is now ahead of the Allen in the polls, and by a decent margin. True, everyone will deny they have taken any polls. But I promise you, polls testing the two men in a hypothetical match-up have not only been taken, they are being studied.

Historically, sitting governors are regarded with a certain reverence in Virginia especially when compared to sitting U.S. senators. Whether this will hold once Warner leaves office is of course a matter of speculation, as Allen himself would also be an ex-Governor. But it is fair bet that Warner would be ahead of Allen in the January, 2006 polls.

Ultimately, a lot depends on who is sitting in the White House. Robb was hurt by having to defend Clinton and, likewise, having to run with Al Gore who was losing the state to George Bush.

On the other hand, historical trends suggest that if Bush wins a second term, the 2006 mid-term cycle might favor the out-party given the problems presidents incur when given a second bite of the apple. As indicated, Allen won in 2000 when Clinton was in the White House, as he was when John Warner won in 1996. In 1988, Reagan was President when Robb bluffed Trible out: in 1978, John Warner won his upset race while again, a President of the opposite party held the White House. Since 1977, the Party of the President has lost every single gubernatorial contest. Thus, in terms of truly contested elections, this pattern has held for a long time.

Timing, timing, timing.

In late 1991, in Los Angeles, I ran into Pat Caddell, the guy who developed the idea for the TV-show West Wing and who remains a consultant to the show.

We were talking and he said basically this as I remember it: "Paul, we both think alike on this. We think a governor is gonna beat Bush in 1992 despite the polls because the economy is bad and Bush is such a pill as a candidate." I agreed, and of course we each had our favorites: I was for Governor Wilder, he was former California Governor Jerry Brown and we figured the guy to beat was Gov. Bill Clinton. Caddell, having been Carter's pollster, understood my theory that Wilder had a shot at putting together the Southern moderate coalition that has dominated Democratic Primaries in recent years.

"The senators can forget it," he said. "Not their year." We both figured Governor Cuomo of New York, the prohibitive favorite had he run, would not run, and the same for Reverend Jackson. We therefore assumed Clinton was the front-runner, but thought he could be beat. "This is like the Carter elections" he said. "It worked for Carter in 1976 and against him
against Governor Reagan in 1980."

Pat knew he was right.

Two thousand and four is trickier in my view because of the war in Iraq and the earlier starting recession. As a general rule, members of Congress have a better generic profile when war is an issue than do governors. This was certainly true in the during the Vietnam War years. As Democrats tend to be seen as the more dovish party, they often feel a need to beef up their presidential candidates with foreign policy credentials in such times.

In that regard, LBJ ran with Sen. Humphrey, Vice President Humphrey ran with Sen. Edmund Muskie and Sen. George McGovern originally chose Sen. Tom Eagleton. On the hand, a hawk like Richard Nixon could choose Gov. Agnew of Maryland.

Right now, it is not clear whether the Peace or Prosperity will be the dominant issue in the Democratic presidential primaries. Governor Dean has flipped history on its head by taking the foreign policy issue away from the Washington politicians, leaving them trying to regroup on the domestic issues where outsiders have tended to do better.

Still, it seems likely no matter who wins the 2004 Democratic nomination, the War issue will be of sufficient importance to warrant someone with some foreign policy experience as Vice-President. In terms of strategy, it would seem the safer play.

Timing, timing, timing.

Accordingly, Gov. Warner might be wise to make a more Shermanesque statement on the vice presidential nod. Right now, he risks the national press floating his name and then shooting it down for reasons highlighting his lack of foreign policy and military experience.

Given the risks vs. the probabilities of success for someone who may have to run for the senate in 2006, I would kill the VP talk and then sit back and watch. There is no need to give Sen. Allen any unnecessary opening.

As for 2006, I think Senator Allen can be beaten although the election would be like a contest with his father's vaunted Redskin defensive line on a rainy day: It would be decided in the trenches, yard by yard.

Warner's decision regarding a challenge to Sen. Allen will come down to a classic game-theory equation answering this question: Is the likelihood of winning a potential open seat in 2008 outweighed by the likelihood of winning a bruising battle against Sen. Allen in 2006?

You need to put in all the potential variables and their appropriate values which, admittedly, contain a fair amount of subjective judgment. So, having run the mathematical formula, I come to this conclusion: The better choice is for Gov. Warner to run against Sen. Allen in 2006. A bruising but winnable campaign against Allen might well cost him some $20 million of his own money. But that's preferable to waiting until 2008 only to find Sen. Warner aiming for Strom Thurmond's record as the longest-serving Senator.

Timing, timing, timing.

Sen. Allen's team has been over this equation many times in the last months. True, they will deny it, as will Warner's advisors.

But as I say: George Allen got into the senate by daring to challenge the highest-vote getting Virginia Democrat in the modern age. Sometimes, as in 1988 when the GOP failed to field a credible challenger to Chuck Robb, the stars align and they give these senate seats away without a fight.

Yes, some people do have such luck. But barring such good fortune or a major change in a critical variable, the game theorists say we are likely to be looking at an Allen vs. Warner senatorial battle in 2006.

-- October 6, 2003


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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.


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