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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
same logic applies to governors of Virginia. 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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
-- October 6, 2003