Patrick McSweeney


Wait-and-See Warner


Gov. Warner could have turned the 2004 election into a referendum on his tax proposals. But he didn't want to take the risk. Now he will pay the political price of his caution.


In a proclamation of rarely matched cynicism, Gov. Mark R. Warner congratulated himself after the polls closed on November 4 for providing “straight talk” to Virginians. This is the same man who refused to tell voters before the election whether or not he would propose another tax increase, how he intended to reform Virginia’s tax code and what kind of state budget he would recommend next month to the General Assembly.


Warner’s statement surely would have drawn more attention had it not been for an even more outrageous election night comment by state Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, who fumed that approval of a mayor-at-large ballot measure by voters in the capital city would lead to a race war there. Marsh was unfazed by the fact that the measure carried by an 80 percent margin and was approved by a majority in each of the city’s nine districts. One obvious difference between the remarks of Marsh and Warner is that Marsh’s were spoken in the emotion of the moment, while Warner’s were a calculated follow-up to an equally calculated campaign strategy to keep voters in the dark.


Refusing to come clean with the voters before the election was proper undermines our political process.  Warner’s flimsy excuse for hiding his tax plans and refusing to discuss an issue of such public importance before an election is that campaign debates involve nothing but sound bites.

Without a doubt, the rough and tumble of political campaigns leads to excesses and distortions. That hardly justifies Warner’s arrogant refusal to participate.


Warner should have laid out what he proposes. If the voters can’t see through slogans and distortions, that’s their problem.


The real loser in this political drama is Warner himself.  Because he made every effort to prevent the 2003 elections from becoming a referendum on taxes or even on his own performance as governor, he can’t fairly claim a mandate for any proposal of his own.


Mandates aren’t earned by keeping things from voters. Had Warner taken a big political risk by laying out his proposals and aggressively defending them during the election campaigns, he could have taken advantage of a deep division in GOP ranks. There were GOP candidates openly advocating higher taxes and others solemnly pledging to oppose any tax increase.

A high-risk campaign by Warner might have stirred up enough support to assure the election of some Democrats who lost on November 4. By the same token, such a high-risk campaign could have led to the defeat of one or more Democrats who won last Tuesday.


Warner simply decided not to risk much in 2003. He must pay a political price for his default.


Warner may have brought upon himself the worst of both worlds. He can’t reasonably claim that voters have endorsed tax reform or tax increases, and he has put additional steel in the backbones of GOP lawmakers who campaigned unapologetically against any tax increases — and won. This will make his lobbying of Republicans in the General Assembly all the more difficult.


In the end, the more important issue is not what Warner’s wait-and-see strategy has done to his own political fortunes or to the fate of tax reform, but what his strategy has done to public confidence in our political system.  Warner should not be surprised to find that, because he showed so little confidence in our political system and in the voters, Virginians have less confidence in the system and in Warner himself.


-- November 17, 2003


















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