Something important must be happening when a Democratic governor becomes a hero to the intellectual right. Feeling betrayed by President George Bush’s embrace of higher taxes during last year’s budget debate, many conservatives have lauded Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder for sticking to his no-new-taxes guns in state budget squabbles. The Virginia offshoot of the free-market Citizens for a Sound Economy enthusiastically lobbies for Wilder’s fiscal restraint, while liberal groups demonstrate against the governor.
Wilder’s rhetoric, as much as his actions, has attracted an unlikely following and makes him a powerful force in American politics. “When I was growing up,” Wilder, the grandson of black slaves, told a recent interviewer, “one of the things my generation wanted was for government to get out of the way that the government imposed too many restrictions, too many barriers, too many limitations. We were not asking government for anything for us but to remove itself.”
Is Doug Wilder a conservative? There are as many answers to that question as there are “experts” to provide them. One Richmond lobbyist calls him “a cautious moderate with liberal views.” “I guess you might call him a situational conservative,” says Robert Holland, associate editor of the Richmond Times- Dispatch. Al From, executive director of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, calls Wilder “fiscally conservative and socially progressive.” Virginia voters have taken a shot at the labeling game themselves. In Wilder’s 1989 gubernatorial victory over Republican Marshall Coleman, 61 percent of Wilder voters called him a moderate in exit polls. Exactly 61 percent of Coleman voters called Wilder a liberal.
Labels matter. Poll after poll has found that the American public doesn’t like the term liberal or people identified as such. Progressive, however, is just fine. So defining Wilder isn’t just an intellectual exercise or a diversion for political junkies. It’s crucial to understanding Wilder’s impact on Virginia, on Southern politics, and on the national Democratic Party.
The first elected black governor in U.S. history, Wilder took office with heaps of media attention, and the heaps have become mountains during his administration. Every short list of presidential or vice presidential candidates for 1992 include Wilder’s name. Every East Coast governor, Democrat and Republican, looks at Wilder’s no-new-taxes approach to state budget woes as an unbelievable and perhaps unrepeatable success (several have “researchers” in Richmond figuring out how Wilder has done it). Columnists and pundits drop his name at every turn. His rhetorical theme, the “New Mainstream,” rivals the White House’s “New Paradigm” as hippest catchphrase of the year.
So what should we call him? Unfortunately for the knee-jerk types, Wilder has embraced positions during his first year as Virginia governor that support the conservative, moderate, and liberal labels. “The truth is,” one Washington journalist told me, “Doug Wilder has become America’s most skillful politician at the art of positioning.” And his art has a rapt nationwide audience.
Doug Wilder the Conservative. The issue that has really kept Wilder’s name in the headlines is taxes. Virtually alone among governors facing state budget deficits, Wilder has eschewed any new taxes in favor of a combination of program cuts, layoffs, salary freezes, and one-time budget gimmicks. In a November speech outlining further budget cuts, Wilder introduced a nifty phrase-“we’re putting necessities before niceties”- that has since popped up in budget debates from Albany to Austin.
In the same speech, Wilder defended his fiscal conservatism by saying: “I will always opt for long-term prosperity over short-term popularity.” Actually, it appears that he’s achieved both, sort of. He’s very popular with Democrats and conservatives outside of Virginia. Within the state, Wilder still has respectable ratings, but his budget cuts have alienated powerful interest groups. A Times-Dispatch poll pegged his approval rating in mid-fall at 48 percent, lower than that of any Virginia governor in the 1980s. Still, compared to governors who have raised taxes too – most notably New Jersey’s Jim Florio – Wilder has fared well in the public-opinion game. Revenue shortfalls in states that require balanced budgets will never help a governor’s approval ratings, no matter what his response is.
Interestingly, Wilder the Knife’s budget prescriptions have generated virtually no formal political opposition (one or two state senators occasionally mention a sales-tax increase). Republicans questioned the governor’s authority to make some of the cuts while the legislature was out of session, but the charges didn’t stick. After Wilder outlined his planned cuts for local governments, private organizations such as museums and foundations, and state construction projects, the Republicans didn’t attack his programs. Instead, they blamed the mess on the Democrats’ longtime stranglehold on state government. At the same time, few Democrats have stepped out to challenge Wilder on policy. For one thing, it would alienate Democratic State Chairman Paul Goldman, Wilder’s closest adviser and the holder of the party’s political purse-strings. Wilder has a reputation for taking criticism personally, so Democrats refuse to cross him.
As far as enemies go, Wilder has the “right” ones-from a conservative point of view. The Virginia Governmental Employees Association is angry about layoffs and salary freezes. The Virginia Education Association, a strong Wilder supporter in 1989, released a report in November that called Virginia a “low-tax state” and expressed support for a sales-tax hike. These groups accuse Wilder of “playing to a national audience” at the expense of the state, says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg.
Those in the black establishment think little of Wilder’s frugality. “How can you be a fiscal conservative and a policy liberal?” asked Ronald Walters, a Howard University professor, in a Washington Post interview. Walters criticized the Wilder New Mainstream for trying to “out-Reagan Reagan, out-Republican the Republicans.” Avon Drake, director of African-American studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, agrees. He told the Washington Times that Wilder is “obsessed with raising issues that are interesting for whites and less interested in raising black issues.”
Tax machismo isn’t the only sign of a conservative influence in the Wilder administration. Wilder has teased conservative interviewers such as Donald Lambro and Fred Barnes with favorable comments about the Strategic Defense Initiative and parental choice in schooling. In fact, Wilder’s education secretary, James W. Dyke, Jr., asked the state board of education in late 1990 to study educational choice experiments in Milwaukee and Minnesota for possible application to Virginia.
Doug Wilder the Moderate. Wilder has proposed some new programs. But they’re all more symbolic than activist, and each relies heavily on private money and cautious implementation. Among Wilder’s pet ideas: a state conservation corps called Opportunity Knocks that would put poor kids to work clearing nature trails and cleaning up state parks,; a Head Start-style program for poor 4-year-olds; and various programs to combat drug abuse. These programs all have two things in common: They are “kind and gentle,” and they are cheap.
Wilder’s status as a preeminent Democratic moderate is interesting given his long-running feud with former Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, one of the leading spokesmen for moderate conservatism and a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council. Their sparring actually dates back to 1982, when Wildler went after Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Owen Pickett whom Robb supported. During the campaign Pickett invoked the name of the late Virginia governor and U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd, a man whose opposition to civil rights legislation rnade him a hero to many white Virginians but an anathema to blacks. Wilder didn’t approve. To derail Pickett, Wilder entered the Senate race. Since then, Wilder and Robb have had an on-again, off-again political alliance (at this writing, it’s off). But ’Wilder doesn’t always alienate-Pickett later received Wilder’s endorsement in a congressional race.
To moderate Democrats, Wilder is a godsend. He’s black, he’s moderate in style and substance, and he’s Southern. Not surprisingly, Wilder reportedly makes the DLC’s AI From “giddy.”