Wilder and Wilder

The Virginia governor's split personality might be just what voters want in a president.


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 Wilder 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 made 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."

Doug Wilder the Liberal. Socially conservative Virginians may very well wonder what all the giddiness is about. Wilder has flunked two key litmus tests for social conservatives—abortion and the admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute. Abortion was a key issue in the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial race, and Wilder unabashedly ran as a pro-choice candidate. Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, believes that the abortion issue may have especially helped Wilder with women; in a post-election analysis, Sabato found that women disproportionately favored Wilder, with a "gender gap" double that found in the 1985 gubernatorial race.

But even when defending a traditionally liberal position, Wilder's rhetoric differed greatly from the strident feminist-inspired slogans of many abortion-rights groups. His TV ads and public speeches made frequent references to Thomas Jefferson—a native Virginian, founder of the University of Virginia, and potent political symbol in the state. Wilder stressed Jeffersonian ideals of limited government and individual freedom on the abortion issue, rather than vilifying pro-lifers.

While the pro-choice vote formed an important part of Wilder's winning coalition, an even more important part, Sabato found, was the urban vote—particularly a spectacular 73-percent turnout by blacks. Liberal activists from around the country worked for Wilder and lauded him as a progressive standard-bearer. Wilder has been reluctant to take symbolic stands that would alienate these voters. For much of the last year, the Virginia Military Institute has been defending its male-only admissions policy in court. At first, Wilder seemed to back VMI, but in late November he announced that he opposed the policy. His rhetoric clearly was aimed at blacks and liberal Democrats: "No person should be denied admittance to a school supported by state funds solely because of his or her race or gender."

"Wilder clearly changed his position on the issue," says Rozell. The state attorney general, Mary Sue Terry, had been defending VMI in court—carrying out what was then Wilder's policy. Terry, a possible gubernatorial candidate in 1993, withdrew from the case after Wilder's November surprise, saying Wilder was the "ultimate architect" of state policy. While Terry denied that politics drove the administration's policy, Rozell notes that Wilder could hardly "offend the liberal activist groups nationwide that would be crucial in the 1992 presidential primaries."

That brings us to Doug Wilder the Candidate. Ultimately, say many Virginia analysts and lobbyists, Wilder's positions are determined not by some unifying vision or ideology, but by what effect they will have on his political future. "As a Democratic candidate, you've got to get beyond the image of the party as being beholden to the special interests and being the tax-and-spend party," Rozell says. Wilder's positions do that nicely. "I think he's completely politically motivated," says one lobbyist for conservative causes in Richmond. "I support Wilder 98 percent of the time, but I recognize political reality."

The Wilder administration has surprised the people who put him into office, as well as his opposition. One of Marshall Coleman's campaign slogans warned that, "We don't need Wilder taxes and Wilder spending." The Republicans can't be blamed for misjudging Wilder. From his election to the legislature in 1969—he was the first black to serve in the chamber since Reconstruction—to the early 1980s, Wilder was one of Virginia's most liberal legislators. He stood almost alone against several popular death penalty bills in the 1970s, but by his 1985 lieutenant governor's race he wholeheartedly endorsed capital punishment. In 1985 he also started to stress tax cuts and fiscal restraint, despite his pro-spending record in the legislature.

As lieutenant governor, Wilder played a leading role in Virginia's political drama. As early as 1987, many journalists and political insiders expected a Wilder bid for governor. Some even predicted that Wilder wouldn't be satisfied with the statehouse. In 1988, Linda Williams, then a policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, D.C., predicted that if Wilder were elected governor, the nation's eyes would turn toward him as a national leader, even as a presidential candidate. Now a research fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Williams says she has been surprised only by the degree of Wilder's self-promotion outside the state.

In a sense, Wilder simply followed Virginia political tradition by hitting the ground running. The state's governors can serve only one term, so any hopes they have for continuing their political careers force them to run for another office. Chuck Robb, for example, made a national name for himself as governor and was often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate before he reduced his ambitions and ran for the Senate in 1988. Wilder's quest to be on a presidential ticket isn't surprising, says Williams, because "both US. senators are popular and would be very difficult to defeat."

But Wilder has expanded on Richmond statehouse tradition in an unprecedented manner. Virginians get the sense that he's constantly talking past them to a.national audience. He's already formed a political action committee (headed by Goldman) as a prelude to 1992. He's spent more time in presidential primary states than in some parts of Virginia. Last spring he told a Minnesota audience that he was "fearful of what may happen if I don't speak out [about national issues]. I take no comfort sitting back and watching while Rome burns." Translation: Let me be your emperor.

One sure sign that Wilder's presidential aspirations are serious is his constant sparring with potential Democratic rivals. He goes out of his way to note that he, unlike Jesse Jackson, has fought for and won elected office. Lately, Wilder has taken swipes at New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Not surprisingly, Wilder's swipes at leading Democrats have earned him some admiration from Republicans. In his first meeting with reporters after being named Republican National Committee chairman, William Bennett remarked that Wilder "contradicts a lot of people's image of the Democratic party." (Bennett has since declined the GOP job.)

But Wilder still reserves his strongest attacks for Republicans. He wrote President Bush after the November elections to complain that the North Carolina GOP was trying to "intimidate" blacks when it sent out postcards on behalf of Sen. Jesse Helms reminding them that they must vote in the district where they are registered. By not condemning the postcards, Wilder wrote, Bush was "serving as the leading apologist for the unconscionable actions of Senator Jesse Helms."

Wilder has other issues to run against Bush. He and his adviser Goldman have been particularly vocal in criticizing Bush's veto of last year's Civil Rights Act, which Bush and Helms had called a "quota bill." Wilder also uses the tax issue to knock Bush. Speaking at a National Review conference on "Conservatism and the Democratic Party," Wilder reflected on Bush's abandonment of "no new taxes" and the subsequent budgetary brouhaha. "I was certain that both the topic and the address of this conference were misprints," he joked. "But then I concluded that National Review had decided that it is no longer possible to hold a conference to discuss, with a straight face, conservatism in the Republican Party." Rozell suggests that there is truth in the joke: "Bush gave Wilder a big opportunity by breaking his no-new-taxes pledge." Wilder, by contrast, has kept his word and fought higher taxes.

Wilder, or at least the wing of the Democratic party he represents, does indeed present the biggest challenge to Republicans in recent years. In the 1989 gubernatorial election, Wilder won 56 percent of voters aged 18–44, while Coleman won 62 percent of voters over 60. During the Reagan years, young voters in Virginia and elsewhere were the most loyal to the GOP. Wilder could possibly attain similar numbers in a national race. "Older voters are less libertarian, more socially conservative, and less pro-choice on abortion," concludes Sabato.

Wilder's positions as governor paint the picture of a conservative on taxes and spending and a liberal on social issues. That seems to be a winning combination for younger voters, if expressed in moderate terms by a moderate-looking candidate. Such prospects for victory, if nothing more, explain where Wilder is—and where he may be going.

Contributing Editor John Hood is publications and research director for the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a columnist for Spectator (N.C.) magazine.