Oh, no. It’s yet another “rising star” governor of the Democratic Party to the rescue!
After President Bush’s State of the Union address, Democrats trotted out Tim Kaine, the recently elected “centrist” governor of red-but-increasingly-purple Virginia to present their response.
Governor Kaine gave a laundry list of purported ills that afflict America and declared repeatedly, “there is a better way.” Apparently the qualities Kaine represents are some democrats’ vision of what it takes to beat Republicans in 2006 and 2008.
On the surface, Kaine seems politically appealing. He can “talk faith.” He speaks the vocabulary of free enterprise and often speaks of Virginia as “the best managed state” as if it were a corporation. More importantly, he is “a rising star in the [Democratic] party who… [won] election in a state that Bush won comfortably in 2004.” During that election, he even did unexpectedly well in Loudoun County, Virginia, where I live, which is a quintessentially Republican exurb.
But, as the saying goes, I have seen this movie before.
Before I moved to Virginia, I lived in Washington State, home of now ex-Governor Gary Locke, who gave the Democratic Response to President Bush’s State of the Union address in 2003. Governor Locke, too, was a much-heralded “rising star” of the Democratic Party at the time.
Locke was also considered a centrist, someone who showed fiscal restraint and was not given to the ranting of the Michael Moore wing of the party. In one way, he was even more compelling than Kaine — he embodied the classic American dream story. Born to poverty-stricken immigrants, he went to Yale and rose to become the first Asian-American governor outside Hawaii. There was much hope for Locke’s future, even a discussion about a potential vice presidential candidacy.
Then it all came crashing down. In the first place, Locke’s victory inflated the perception of his political skill and appeal. His Republican opponent had run a particularly bad and controversial campaign. While Locke might have been “centrist,” his party was not. He was thus beholden to the liberal institutional interests of the Democrats. For a while, the tech boom masked flawed leftist policies, but when the crash came, the economy of the state sank while many red states fared better.
By the end of his second term, Locke was so unpopular that he gave no boost to his Democratic successor, Christine Gregoire, who barely won by literally a few hand-recounted votes in a botched gubernatorial election — in an overwhelmingly blue state — that was a national embarrassment.
Similarly, Kaine’s “centrist Democrat” victory in a purportedly beat-red state loses much of its luster, when one examines the election that brought him to office. As with Locke’s Republican opponent in Washington State, Republican Jerry Kilgore ran a poor campaign against Kaine in Virginia. Dick Morris, who knows a thing or two about elections, called the Republican gubernatorial campaign here variously “horrible,” “lousy,” and “stupid.”
Despite Kaine’s past poor ratings from the National Rifle Association, his campaign actually completed the questionnaire from Virginia Citizen Defense League, a prominent local gun rights organization. Not only did the Kilgore campaign refuse to do so, it insulted the organization’s head too. It is telling when a Republican campaign alienates gun owners, a strong component of the conservative base.
Some fellow Loudoun County voters, many of them Republicans, told me that they found Kilgore unappealing and that Kaine — even if a Democrat — “couldn’t screw things up too much” so long as the Republicans controlled the state legislature.
This is hardly the winning recipe for the national Democrats in 2006 and 2008, especially since the national Republicans are unlikely to run such particularly incompetent campaigns.
Democrats will, no doubt, make much political hay out of the corruption scandals, the continuing struggle in Iraq and other politically messy events. But the forces that brought the fundamental conservative realignment have not changed. Red states and counties are still growing in people and clout while blue states and counties are generally losing them.
Furthermore, neither Locke nor Kaine’s purported “centrism” really presents a workable Democratic vision that can sustain electorally victories in the long run. While they may have the edge in “mommy” issues like education and healthcare, they still do not have a convincing, coherent vision of national security in the Age of Global War on Terror.
Kaine and the national Democrats can repeat “There is a better way” endlessly. The voters are not going to trust them unless they can present a unified, realistic, tough and, indeed, better plan to protect America. So long as the Democrats are beholden to the Michael Moores, the Deaniacs and the Kossacks, whatever political advantage they derive from a temporary Republican weakness is not going to amount to much in the long-term.
Remember that the “promise” of a rising star of a centrist Democratic governor in 2003 was followed swiftly by a resounding Republican victory in 2004.