October 28, 2005

The Sensible Center

A red-state Democratic governor explains how Democrats can win again with a positive agenda for the future.

By Mark Warner


Let me tell you about life in today's Washington.

In today's Washington, a fiscal conservative is someone who thinks the deficits can go on forever. He thinks that you can make the cost of the war go away by using Enronesque budgeting tactics of simply taking the costs off the balance sheet.

In today's Washington, politicians work deep into the night to try to write laws to interfere with the family of Terry Schiavo and ignore the fact that there are 45 million Americans with no health care at all.

In today's Washington, politicians refuse to unlock stem-cell research that could change the lives of millions of Americans with potentially curable diseases.

In today's Washington -- we see it day in and day out -- the heroes are political operatives whose only goal is to find the nastiest way to ruin their opponents, even if at the cost of our national security.

In today's Washington, it's all about the issues that divide us and about settling the scores of the past.

Yet in the heartland, in states like Virginia, folks are looking for something else, something I call the sensible center. The sensible center is wide open for any Democrat who can credibly make the case.

For years, the right wing of the Republican Party has asked its candidates to take socially extreme positions that are outside the mainstream. For the most part, those candidates took those positions, but once elected they only paid lip service to them. Some of that changed after the 2004 elections. They said, hold it: We control the White House, the Congress, the courts, the majority of the statehouses. Why aren't we getting our due? So now the right wing is asking for its pound of flesh -- on Terri Schiavo, stem cells, and a whole new series of litmus tests. Combine these actions with a failed fiscal policy and America's damaged reputation in the world, and that means a whole lot of moderate Republicans who consider themselves part of that sensible center are looking for a home. We Democrats can bring them back.

This is not some esoteric theory. I'm living proof of its accuracy. I'm very proud of the fact that I had a united Democratic Party behind me. But I would not be governor of one of the reddest states in America -- Virginia -- if I also hadn't been able to get support from a lot of independents and moderate Republicans. If Democrats are going to become the majority party in America again, we've got to do that all over the country.

How do we do that? We start by simply telling the truth; by being straight with people on issues from fiscal matters to America's role in the world. We do it by recognizing that in 2005, the issues in this country are no longer left versus right or liberal versus conservative; they are about the future versus the past. The Democratic Party has always been at its best when we've looked to the future. It's been our heritage. Roosevelt led us through the Depression and the Second World War. Kennedy challenged us to put a man on the moon. Clinton led us through the greatest economic expansion in American history. That is our Democratic record. We've done it before and we can do it again.

Sensible solutions. It's that legacy that inspired me. I came into office after a winning campaign that included a lot of folks in rural Virginia who hadn't voted Democrat in a long time. I've had some success in governing Virginia because we've focused on sensible solutions that look to that future.

When I was elected following a Republican governor, we first of all had to get our fiscal house in order. Virginia was a state in the red. My predecessor, who had been the chairman of the Republican National Committee, left me a budget shortfall six times greater than he publicly stated.

But we also used that crisis as a chance to totally reform Virginia state government.

We then went about reforming our tax code with a Republican legislature. That allowed us to make historic new investments in education, the key to our future. We kept the focus on making our academics more rigorous, and we made sure that those new dollars were held accountable in how they were spent in our schools.

Virginia today has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the whole country. Virginia has a booming economy. And after a two-year independent study by Governing magazine, Virginia was named the best-managed state in the country.

We did all this by focusing on what's important for the future of Virginia, not what's politically expedient. We did it with support from legislators of both parties. We found common ground in the sensible center. Imagine if that was the way it was done in Washington.

We live in an extraordinary time in America. Our challenges are enormous. American men and women in uniform are deployed around the globe on dangerous missions, in dangerous places, raising valid questions about the strength and size of our armed forces. We're in a struggle with a new enemy that can strike anywhere at any time, in a war unlike any that we have fought before.

Here at home, economic change is happening more rapidly than any of us thought possible. We feel like we're paying too much at the pump. We feel like we're spending too much time away from home. We worry that our jobs may be outsourced to Bangalore.

As a nation, we're getting older. Our social safety nets -- Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security -- need attention. Medicaid will bankrupt most states by 2020. Increasingly, there are going to be fewer workers responsible for more older Americans.

We actually run the risk of being the first generation in American history to leave behind a country weaker than the one we were born in.

A few months ago, I led a trade mission to India. I saw a number of things there that speak to me about where we need to be as a nation. I was struck by the crushing poverty. But I also saw something incredibly hopeful and inspiring. There was a project called the Hole in the Wall. Computers were literally placed in a hole in a concrete wall with a little tin roof over it. They turned on the computers in the morning; they turned them off at night. No teachers. I met a kid named Samir. He asked me how to spell my name so he could Google me. And these young people were emailing and instant messaging. They were doing exactly the same thing that my own daughters do with their computers at home.

The kids were remarkable. This experience said to me that the race is on for the future. Who's going to own it? Who's going to get there first? This is America's next great challenge, and we must start preparing right now.

I don't think we're prepared. Consider this: at a time when a commitment to education, technology, and research and development has never been more important, American R&D as a percentage of GDP has fallen to one-sixth in the world. The United States ranks 11th in the world in broadband deployment. Less than 15 percent of our high school students take enough science and math to qualify for any kind of engineering or advanced science in college. India alone produces four times more engineers each year than the United States. Our 15-year-olds now rank 28th in the world in math scores.

These are stark realities. We've got to face them. In Virginia, we have put down 700 miles of broadband in our rural communities so folks don't have to leave home to find a quality job. Even though our economy is booming, we still have 700,000 working-age adults -- nearly 20 percent of Virginia's workforce -- without a high school diploma. These people worked in jobs like textile, furniture, and tobacco. We partnered with NASCAR and started a "Race to the GED" program, encouraging people to go back and get a certificate so they can qualify for 21st century jobs.

In our high schools, no matter how rural, no matter how urban, we are offering the opportunity for students who are college bound to earn one semester's worth of fully transferable college credits -- get a jump start on college. We're saving parents $7,000 off the cost of higher education.

For non-college-bound students, we're saying, "Work with us." We'll guarantee you not only a diploma, but also an industry-recognized certification: computer technician, auto mechanic, nurse's aide. If that requires courses at the community college beyond high school, as part of our K-12 deal we will pick up the cost. We'll make sure you've got industry certification so that you can go out and get a good paying job as opposed to a minimum wage job.

We're also starting to reduce the perverse incentive that puts our least experienced teachers into our most underperforming schools. We're recruiting highly successful teachers and paying them a $15,000 bonus to go into our underperforming schools for three years.

Our goal is nothing less than to make the Virginia workforce the best educated, most innovative, best connected one in the country. We want Virginians to compete against anyone in the global economy. We should be doing it all over the country.

We don't have the luxury of waiting.

The last few years have seen the virtual elimination of time and space between Boston and Bangalore, between Shanghai and Chicago. These changes are affecting how we live, where we live, how we educate our kids, how we deliver health care, how we protect and preserve our national security. The rate of change is now on steroids. It's accelerating in an ever-quickening pace.

America no longer has the luxury of business as usual in Washington where they study, debate, disagree, go home, and put things off until the next Congress. The status quo is not going to cut it.

America is a country that was born of revolution, and Americans' best values are hard work and innovation. Our country has always been at its best when we've given everyone a fair shake and their own shot at the American dream.

It's always been Democrats who have always been able to see a little bit farther down that road. We are ready to shake things up. The time is right for us to lead again.

(DLC | Blueprint Magazine | October 21, 2005)

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