by Paul Goldman
“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last” said the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King although at the time one of America’s most legendary citizens didn’t have Senator Mark Warner in mind. But ever since the 2010 mid term elections, Senator Warner has been a man on a mission, sensing correctly the wisdom that “politics abhors a vacuum” as the old adage advises. Since Warner doesn’t have to seek re-election until 2014, his politics can be significantly different than Jim Webb who faces the voters in 2012. Warner’s efforts should play to Webb’s advantage in my view.
Let’s cut to the chase: when Republicans ran everything with smaller majorities, they rammed the disastrous Bush economic plan through by reconciliation, a process Senate Democrats refuse to use to clean up his mess.
Do the math. House Democrats, the base of liberal strength, will be in the minority in the new Congress. The top liberals of the past generation, like Kennedy and Feingold, are gone from the Senate, where the Republican right is rising. Right now, all liberals have is the veto pen of the President, but he knows being seen as just saying “No” might work for Sarah Palin’s posse but not for his White House. Yet on key economic issues, the White House doesn’t have a plan they have been able to explain to the American people. Think New Deal, Fair Deal, even Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal. Like it or not, it has to be reduced to sound-bite as folks new even before there was such a thing as a sound-bite.
Bottom line: Right now, Democrats are doing the “walkabout” the term used to define those times when tennis star Evonne Goolagong lost focus and couldn’t get back into the “zone.” She could go a whole set sometimes a match that way. But when she was on her game, the top ranked Australian was unbeatable.
Given that Barack Obama is the nation’s first African-American President, Warner knew it was impossible for any Democratic Senator with a significant black constituency to risk being seen as opposing their hero, and crippling his Presidency before it had a chance of succeeding. This was surely clear to Warner once he realized Senate rules put a bulls eye on an Democrat who broke ranks, given the need to effectively have 60 votes, not 51, to move the Obama agenda.
Thus, Warner basically voted a straight Democratic line, in terms of public perception, during those first two years. If you believe the most recent state polling, this partisan image has caused Warner’s approval rating to drop substantially although not dangerously by any means. Logic suggests that if the President had not been Barack Obama, then Mark Warner would have been far more independent and outspoken on the big issues of the last two years.
Now the mid-term elections have freed him to be the Senator he wants to be.
His latest statements on the deficits, Bush tax cuts, off-shore oil drilling and even the shot at Moveon.org are all part of his trying to find what he considers high ground in Washington’s ideologically scorched earth.
Moderation can be a virtue or a curse, it has more twists and turns than say coming at stuff from the same end of the spectrum on all the time.
Some see the middle of the political road as a yellow line, others see it as the glue that keeps both sides from crashing into each other and blocking any movement.
I think Warner is smart to sense this is a good time for him to make a move. There are a lot of Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2012. So they might off-load their burdens to Warner even though he is a first-termer.
It will likely frustrate and more those on the left and right.
Indeed, that’s part of the strategy, the more they complain, the easier for Warner to be seen as the man in the middle.
So to his critics on the right or left, my bet Senator Warner is thinking like Dirty Harry in that iconic moment in filmdom, Clint Eastwood saying: “Go ahead, make me day.”