Exit Mr. Warner

Saturday, January 14, 2006

IN AN AGE of relentless partisan venom and scarce civility in public life, Mark R. Warner, the outgoing governor of Virginia, provided a new template -- or revived an old one. The example he set in four years in office -- at once bipartisan and resolute, managerially competent and politically astute -- is a real achievement. It will stand as a model for future governors, in Virginia and elsewhere.

It is tempting to hypothesize that it was Mr. Warner's education in the corporate suites of the business world, not the ideologically charged arena of state politics, that accounted for his bipartisan brand of governance in Richmond. Whether the byproduct of experience or temperament, though, the Democrat's pragmatic style fit the bill in a centrist-to-conservative state with a political character that has always been somewhat more genteel than others'.

Virginia governors are limited to a single four-year term in office; almost by definition, their accomplishments are circumscribed by the brevity of their mandates. Mr. Warner's signal achievement, in 2004, was a package of tax reforms -- including a higher sales tax, lower income tax and elimination of the food tax -- that yielded $1.5 billion in additional funding over the next two years. That measure revived Virginia's public schools, preserved its top-ranked credit rating and set the stage for the state's robust public finances.

The tax package was a triumph not only because of its salutary effects on the state treasury but also as an act of political statesmanship. It is important to remember the political context in which it occurred. Reversing course despite his campaign promise not to raise taxes, Mr. Warner acted at a time of financial peril in Virginia -- the state was facing a $6 billion budget shortfall -- and profound political polarization. His Republican predecessor, Gov. James S. Gilmore III, had gutted the state's revenue base with deeply irresponsible tax cuts and left behind a poisonous atmosphere in Richmond. Then Mr. Warner got to work, crossing party lines to woo moderate Republicans. It took two months of legislative overtime, agile maneuvering and uncommon determination, but in the end Mr. Warner got his package through the Republican-controlled legislature.

Republican hard-liners moaned that the governor had hoodwinked everyone and foisted an unneeded tax increase on the state. They missed the essential point: that Virginians, like Mr. Warner, are centrist, flexible and practical-minded by nature, with little time or patience for the strident partisan warfare so popular in Washington. It was a measure of the thirst for a consensual, cooperative political approach that so relatively straightforward an achievement -- a tax package enacted with bipartisan support -- could lift Mr. Warner, by no means the world's most irresistibly charismatic politician, to approval ratings at or above 70


Of course, Mr. Warner did more than retool Virginia's tax system. He also pushed for the enactment and adoption of better and more efficient management techniques throughout state bureaucracy, maybe most importantly in the state transportation department, which badly needed it. Although somewhat cautious by nature, he gambled politically by going out on a limb to campaign for his able No. 2, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, to succeed him.

Now Mr. Warner is weighing a presidential campaign. Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond may soon be asked to judge whether his four years in elected office suffice to make him a credible candidate. Whatever that outcome, his admirable comportment and success in Virginia will carry their own legacy.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company