Virginians who will vote in November's Senate race have a choice between two hopelessly partisan hacks, say the candidates themselves. The Republican challenger, Ed Gillespie, constantly accuses incumbent Democrat Mark R. Warner of marching in lock step with President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. By way of rebuttal, Warner says things like this:
Gillespie "comes from a world where it's all about partisanship, one team versus another team. If there's ever a time where you have to check your Republican and Democrat hats and put our country first, it's now."
Warner has been singing this tune for years. His remarks are littered with references to bipartisanship and his self-appointed status as a "radical centrist." The press largely plays along. Warner "isn't like most Democrats," asserted a piece in The Hill back in the spring. Warner had showed up at the annual Shad Planking, the journal reported, "to show off the bipartisan bona fides that helped him become the state's governor."
Wait a sec. What were those, exactly? Prior to running for governor as a Democrat, Warner ran for Senate as a Democrat, and managed Democrat Doug Wilder's gubernatorial campaign, and served as chairman of the state Democratic Party, and worked for Democrats in Washington. Which of those "bipartisan" bona fides got him elected governor, again?
Gillespie's background is nearly as mono-partisan. He's been a Republican political strategist, chairman of the Republican National Committee, campaign chairman for Republican Bob McDonnell, adviser to other Republican candidates, and White House counselor to Republican George W. Bush. (Unlike Warner, he has a minuscule amount of cross-party history: Once upon a time he interned for a Democrat, and he founded a lobbying business with a Democrat.)
At the Shad Planking, Warner cited, as others have, his history of hashing out a budget agreement with a Republican-dominated state legislature back when he was governor. What often goes unsaid about that deal, though, is that it led to higher taxes and more spending. Warner's great "compromise" therefore achieved traditional Democratic objectives. His putative penchant for working across the aisle has never produced a deal favorable to Republican priorities.
Still, Warner has carried the flag for deficit reduction and fiscal sanity—a cause he clearly cares about—and one that many in his party view with indifference and sometimes hostility. He led the bipartisan Gang of Six, which sought to create a framework for reducing the national debt.
Republicans such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn praise Warner for (as Coburn says) "working hard to try to bring together a consensus" on deficit reduction. He is not afraid to use the term "entitlement reform," and even to suggest such reform is necessary. Granted, talk is cheap. But for some in the Democratic base the mere idea of ever limiting outlays on social welfare is heresy. Warner is certainly no Elizabeth Warren.
But then, "not as bad as Elizabeth Warren" sets the bar awfully low. The Warner team likes to point out that National Journal has ranked their man the 46th-most-liberal senator out of 100. That would seem to qualify him for member of the Senate Moderates' Club— there really are no Senate moderates anymore.
Data from organizations such as the Pew Research Center show that while there used to be substantial overlap between the two parties, over the past three decades or so they have split into two completely separate and warring camps. Being the most moderate Democrat, or Republican, is a bit like being the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs.
For instance, PolitiFact notes that Gillespie is correct when he accuses Warner of voting with President Obama 97 percent of the time. Moreover, Warner votes with Harry Reid 87 percent of the time. (When those two disagree, it's often over fiscal issues.)
And when you consider Warner's scores from other groups, he looks even less moderate. Here's how liberal groups score him:
NARAL Pro-Choice America: 100
National Education Association: 100
Environment America: 100
American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees: 96
Americans for Democratic Action: 85
And here's how conservative groups do:
The National Right to Life Committee: 0
Americans for Prosperity: 0
Heritage Action for America: 10
American Conservative Union: 13
The National Taxpayers Union: 19
This isn't necessarily so bad. Bipartisan agreement is overrated. Often the ideas with the broadest support turn out to be the worst (witness the Patriot Act).
Still, if Warner means what he says about disdaining a political world "where it's all about partisanship, one team versus another team," there's something he could do about it. He could renounce his membership in the Democratic Party and run the rest of the race as an independent.
Doing that would achieve three important things.
First, it would relieve him from ever having to cast another vote to support one team over the other.
Second, it would send an unmistakable signal to the voters that Warner is sincere about representing Virginia as a whole.
Third, it would offer a bold rebuke to the increasingly toxic political haze that fouls the national atmosphere. A half a century ago, notes Cass Sunstein, only 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be "displeased" to have a child who married someone from a different political party. Now, half of Republicans and one-third of Democrats say they would be. By renouncing his party, Warner would strike a real blow for peace in the partisan wars.
Besides, it's not as if he needs the party's help. He's the fifth-richest member of Congress, with an estimated net worth of nearly $100 million. He enjoys high favorability ratings—and lopsided odds of winning.
Finally, renouncing his party membership would inoculate Warner against Gillespie's charge that he's just a party hack. "This proves I really am a radical centrist," Warner could say. Then he could challenge Gillespie to renounce the GOP. "What do you say, Ed?" he might say. "I've checked my partisan hat and put my country first. Will you? And if not, then which one of us is the real partisan tool?"