Mark Warner Bows Out

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Mark Warner announced this morning that he's not running for president. As Prince Metternich asked when informed that the Russian ambassador had suddenly dropped dead, "What can have been his motive?" I suppose it was a calculation that he was just not going to overtake Hillary Rodham Clinton. And that the time, money, and effort required over the next 27 months or so were just not worth it. Warner has a fortune, made after he won a cellphone lottery, but not, I think, a big enough fortune to finance a presidential campaign.

A year ago I thought the Democratic field would pit Clinton against two little-known candidates, Mark Warner on her right and Russ Feingold on her left. Perhaps Warner calculated that there's not enough room on the right to win a Democratic nomination. Certainly, Joe Lieberman's fate in the 2004 race and then in last August's Connecticut Democratic primary tends to support that conclusion. Jimmy Carter could win, in a multicandidate field, in 1976; Bill Clinton, with his spectacular political skills, could win, in a weak field, in 1992; but Mark Warner evidently feels he couldn't win in 2008.

How does this leave the Democratic Party? Instead of Hillary versus two unknown but personally attractive candidates (at least that's how I'd characterize Warner and Feingold), it's looking more like Hillary versus various retreads: John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry. I'm inclined to think Kerry will win minimal support, but he seems determined to run. Gore's bitter denunciations of Bush and the Iraq war are evidently popular on the Democratic left. (It's interesting to remember that he ran as the moderate and hawkish Democratic candidate in 1988.)

Edwards seems to do better than Kerry in polls now, but it doesn't seem certain to me that his stump speech is going to enchant the press in the '08 cycle as it did in '04. His shtick on how many Americans live in poverty is going to wear thin. His stump speech includes a line about a little girl whose parents couldn't afford a winter coat.

Give me a break. You can buy a little girl's winter coat at Wal-Mart for $10. That's the price of taking the little girl out to lunch at McDonald's. As Juan Williams points out in his book Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It, no one in America is stuck in poverty if he or she does three things: graduates from high school; gets a job, any job; refrains from having children before getting married. Poverty comes not from any structural failure of society but from dysfunctional behaviors. Edwards's poverty shtick is a crock.

But back to the Democratic field. It's beginning to look like a field of well-known candidates all of whom, with the possible exception of Edwards, polarize the electorate along the same lines that we have seen in election after election from 1996 to 2004. And to win the Democratic nomination, each of them will have to appeal to the left-wing, hate-Bush rage that proved dominant in '04. That leaves them in a position where it will be hard to win a much larger percentage of the votes than Al Gore did in '00 and John Kerry in '04–48 percent. Of course, if you add a couple of points to that, you could win. By a narrow margin.

Compare what seems to be the likely Republican field. It's beginning to look like this: John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Bill Frist. The only one of those candidates who seems likely to polarize the electorate along the '96–'04 lines is Frist, and he's the one with the lowest support in the polls. Romney could end up doing so, too. But McCain and Giuliani both clearly have appeal to voters who never considered voting for Bush in '00 or '04. They have the capacity, and Romney may have it too, to go beyond the '96–'04 polarization. And they won't have as much incentive to cater in the primaries to the hard right as Democrats will to cater to their hard left, because McCain and Giuliani enter the cycle ahead in the polls. They also have the advantage, as I point out in this column, that voters have some knowledge about how they handle crises and difficulty—more knowledge than they usually have about presidential candidates. They know that John McCain withstood 5½ years of torture and captivity as a prisoner of war. They know how he bounced back from bitter defeat in the '00 primaries. As for Giuliani, you don't have to ask the question, can he handle a crisis? You know the answer.

Mark Warner's withdrawal—if that's what it is—leaves the Republicans in the position of having a field of candidates that is more likely to produce a nominee who can transcend the '96–'04 polarization and win substantial numbers of votes unavailable to his party's nominee in '96, '00, and '04.

Popular vote

George Will has a good column today on Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto of a bill that would have committed California to cast its electoral vote for the popular-vote winner, as soon as states with 270 electoral votes had passed such laws. He points to several adverse effects of having the national popular vote determine the result. I would add one more: It can be difficult to determine who actually won the popular vote. Will points out that John Kennedy in 1960 was credited with winning the popular vote by 118,574 votes, fewer than 1 per precinct. But there's a respectable argument that says that Kennedy didn't win the popular vote. In 1960 Alabama had 11 electoral votes. Under state law, Democratic electors were chosen in the Democratic primary. As it happened, Alabama Democrats chose five electors who voted for Kennedy, the national party's nominee, and six electors who said they would not vote for Kennedy and in fact voted for Sen. Harry Byrd. Voters voted separately for each elector position, and all the Democratic electors won, by very similar margins. Evidently, voters didn't make much distinction between Kennedy and Byrd electors, and the Democratic electors prevailed by margins of about 86,000 votes. But should all of the popular-vote margin be counted for Kennedy? Or should only 5/11 of it be counted for Kennedy? Or should none of it be counted for Kennedy? You could make arguments for any of these alternatives (I'd opt for the first). Opting for the second would give Kennedy a national plurality of 71,627 votes. Opting for the third would give him a national plurality of 32,505.

In a nation with 166,064 precincts, any of the three alternatives would have justified a national recount. In Florida in 2000 we had swarms of lawyers infest the courthouses of 67 counties. Under the rules California's Democratic Legislature wanted, and Schwarzenegger vetoed, we would have had in 1960 swarms of lawyers infest the courthouses of 3,141 counties. There may not have been enough lawyers in the nation for that in 1960. But there are today. Something to think about.

Hurray for Hillary Clinton

That's a headline you haven't seen before in this blog. But I mean it. It's inspired by these excerpts from an interview she held with the editorial board of the Daily News in New York. What do I like about the interview?

No. 1, she avoids the "Bush lied, people died" mantra, which tends to delegitimize our effort in Iraq. Instead, she says, not unreasonably, "We have to deal with the Iraq we have, not the Iraq we wish we had." That sounds to me like someone who is thinking realistically about a responsibility that might be hers starting Jan. 20, 2009.

No. 2, she endorses the idea, which I championed long ago, of an Iraqi oil fund that would distribute part of the state's oil profits in payments to every individual. She says that she recommended it in 2003 and that it was shot down by Dick Cheney–something I've never seen before in print.

"I thought it was something that could demonstrate clearly that we were not on the side of the oil companies, we were not on the side of the ruling elites–we were on the side of the Iraqi people." Yes, exactly! She says that over the past month she has asked the president and deputy prime minister of Iraq and the U.S. ambassador there, "When are you going to get the oil deal done?"

I'm not so positive about her other suggestions–a conference of governments in the region and "phased redeployment" to the peaceful Kurdish north or "just over the horizon in Kuwait." But on the latter the senator is thinking constructively; her argument is that we should let the Iraqis know they have to do more of the fighting. That's a good message to send to the Iraqi government, and one that prudence ought to prompt it to take to heart.

UPDATE: Marc Ambinder of the Political Hotline adds one name to the list of possible Democratic candidates and one I should have thought about immediately: Barack Obama. And Obama, unlike the other Democrats I mentioned,

clearly does have the potential to depolarize the electorate and reach across the party lines that have been so solid '96-'04. Warner's withdrawal widens the niche Obama might occupy. And so both parties have the potential to depolarize the electorate.