November 10, 2005
A Party Finds the Right Words
J. Dionne Jr.
RICHMOND, Va. -- The ecstatic crowd gathered to celebrate Democrat
Tim Kaine's election as governor of Virginia was ready to shout
its assent Tuesday night to absolutely every applause line. But
you could feel the extra jolt of electricity when Gov. Mark Warner,
Kaine's leading supporter, spoke of a certain administration presiding
over the national government about a 100 miles north of here.
Republicans, Warner said, once wanted to ask voters: ``Let's compare
how things are going in Washington versus how things are going
in Virginia.'' The experienced political activists in the room
knew what was coming next and began rumbling their approval when
Warner got to his money line: ``We'll take that comparison any
day of the week!''
What was a very good night for Kaine and Warner was a miserable
night for President Bush. Democrats not only won an away game
in Virginia but on their home ground in New Jersey where Sen.
Jon Corzine won the day's other gubernatorial contest. During
a vicious campaign, Corzine attributed almost anything bad that
was said about him to Bush and his political architect, Karl Rove.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was rebuked on every
proposition he put on the ballot to get around the state's Democratic
Legislature. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former
Democrat turned nominal Republican, won re-election handily only
after doing all he could to separate himself from the Bush administration,
even opposing the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts.
But it was in Virginia, a state that gave Bush 54 percent of its
ballots a year ago, that Democrats had the most to learn. Bush
guaranteed that the nation's eyes would be focused here by campaigning
for Republican Jerry Kilgore just hours before the polls opened.
A year ago, Republicans everywhere begged and pleaded for the
boost in turnout among the faithful a Bush rally could once guarantee.
This year, there would be no Bush magic.
The failure of Bush and Kilgore marked the end of the line for
a certain style of Republican politics. Harsh attacks on Kaine
for opposing the death penalty backfired. Kilgore also figured
he could ride the old social-issue train to victory in a Southern
state. He declared himself ``the pro-gun, anti-tax, limited-government,
anti-illegal immigration, pro-public safety, pro-death penalty,
culture-of-life, trust-the-people conservative.''
In an interview in his office just before the polls closed, a
jovial but slightly jumpy Warner noted the failure of that predictable
litany. Voters, he said, preferred candidates who dealt with questions
that governors ``actually spend 98 percent of their time working
on.'' They are the basics: the budget, health care, education,
transportation and job growth, especially in declining areas.
You can already see the outlines of Warner's likely 2008 presidential
candidacy with his talk of a ``sensible center.'' And there is
a lovely homeliness to Warner's description of what voters really
want from government. ``They want to see stuff done,'' Warner
says. ``They don't care if it's Republican or Democratic. They
want to see stuff done.''
Yet if Warner was immensely helpful, it was Kaine who won with
a notably innovative campaign. Democrats all over the country
will study how this devout Catholic explained his opposition to
the death penalty as a matter of deep religious concern. The strangest
thing is that because the death penalty issue encouraged Kaine
to talk about his faith, it may have helped him with conservative
``This is a very good proving ground for the belief that Democrats
can talk about values and their faith and it will make a difference,''
said Karl Struble, a top Kaine adviser.
David Eichenbaum, another Kaine adviser, noted how faith immunized
Kaine from the dreaded L-word. Focus groups were shown ``the worst
attacks against Tim that they would use to make him into a big
bad liberal.'' The groups were then shown footage of Kaine ``talking
about the importance to him of his religious values and convictions.''
The result? ``And almost to a person, they would say that he must
be a moderate or a conservative, and that he couldn't be a liberal.''
And then there were Kaine's proposals to rein in exurban sprawl,
which helped him carry outer suburbs in Prince William and Loudoun
counties, something even Warner had not been able to do. Pete
Brodnitz, Kaine's pollster, argued that outer suburban voters
saw controlling growth as a better solution to the region's transportation
problems than more ``taxing and paving,'' as Kaine would put it.
So, yes, Tuesday's elections will be seen as a rebuke to Bush.
But they may be more important as the moment when Democrats finally
figured out how to talk without embarrassment about God and the
practical uses of government.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group