One of the great rituals of American politics is the First Big Profile of a potential presidential candidate in one of the Newspapers of Record. This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine’s cover story is Matt Bai’s initial take on Mark Warner. (You can read a summary, and down in the comment thread, the actual text, here.)The piece is generally interesting, and fair to its subject, but it suffers from an obsession with Warner’s potential rivalry with Hillary Clinton. Much of Bai’s analysis looks at Mark Warner as a non-Clinton, an anti-Clinton, and even as a Clintonian Not Named Clinton. It would have been nice if Bai had devoted a few graphs to what Warner might represent if Hillary does not run, just as an analysis of Hillary’s husband in 1990 might have benefitted from the assumption that Mario Cuomo might not run.But IMO, Bai redeems himself with a very solid paragraph about Warner’s particular appeal to rural voters in the South and elsewhere:
Warner’s constant theme, which a lot of Washington politicians talk about but few seem to actually understand, was the need to modernize for a global economy. The days when you could walk down the streetand get a job at the mill were over, Warner would say,and new jobs — the state gained more than 150,000 ofthem on his watch — would require new skills and infrastructure. So Warner, working with Nascar, pushed through an accelerated program that enabled 35,000 more Virginians to get high-school equivalency degrees, and he introduced a program to deliver broadband capacity to 20 Southern counties. “In the 1800’s, if the railroad didn’t come through your small town, the town shriveled up and went away,” he told me once, explaining his rural program. “And if the broadband Internet doesn’t come through your town in the next few years, the same thing will happen.” If he ultimately decides to run for president, Warner will try to build a national campaign around this same technology-driven approach.
This take on Warner’s potential appeal to southern and rural voters is a nice corrective to the conventional wisdom that in Virginia he just seduced the folks by hiring bluegrass bands and Nascar teams and coming out for huntin’ and fishin’. All these things mattered, but his real pitch to rural Virginians tired of losing in the Old Economy was that the New Economy offered new hope, not a new threat. This is a message that could resonate in “backward” areas all over the country. And ironically, Hillary Clinton has spent a lot of time mining this very promising vein as well.Bai rightly suggests that Warner, like any governor, has to come up with a clear message and agenda on national security. But it would be helpful if journalists profiling Warner, or Hillary Clinton for that matter, would contrast potential 2008 Democrats not just with each other, but with the former governor in the White House who is so thoroughly screwing up international and domestic policy every single day.