Where's Warner?

The question has hung over the first half of the General Assembly session as a reminder of Gov. Mark R. Warner's hands-off approach to politics while the legislature is at work in Richmond. When fellow Democrats ask the question, it's a reproach to a nearly invisible ally. When Republicans ask, it's with the smug knowledge that this governor will remain a largely unseen and unfelt presence as long as they're in town.

There doesn't seem to be a fight, any fight, that Warner deems worth picking while the Republican majority is in Richmond -- no principled stand on the burning issue of the day or a coherent theme that holds together a legislative agenda that Republicans will just pick to pieces.

"He recognizes his limitations with the minority party," said Del. Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, a leader of the House Democrats and a close friend of Warner's. "He needs cooperation from Republicans, so I think he's doing the responsible thing. . . . His responsibility is not to agitate the other side but rather to be responsible and seek their cooperation.

"So, I'm not surprised that he's taking the course that he is," Moran said. "He's not only a leader of the Democratic Party. He's now the chief executive of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and he has to do what's in the best interests of all Virginians, Democrats and Republicans."

Yet there surely is a compelling nonpartisan interest in the process by which the General Assembly unseated a Newport News Circuit Court judge last week, a major statewide news event that Warner declined to discuss the day it happened. Even those who opposed reconfirmation of Judge Verbena M. Askew to the bench said they were deeply troubled by how the legislature conducted her removal.

From Warner came nothing but silence.

Ditto the re-indictment of the former executive director of the Republican Party and a misdemeanor guilty plea by the former chief of staff to the former House of Delegates speaker, both events stemming from their role in eavesdropping on a Democratic conference call last year. Those developments reignited some of the rage that Democrats felt last March when they learned that their private calls were not so private. Again, nothing to speak of from Warner.

"What is it that he's going to say that hasn't been said?" Moran said of Warner.

What, indeed? Moran's partner in the House Democratic leadership, Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall of Richmond, said Virginia's top Democrat ought to be speaking out more, starting with the eavesdropping case that Republicans would like to see vanish.

"His voice, I would like to hear, along with a whole chorus of others who rise with indignation and say, 'Look, what they've done is wrong, it's just flat-out wrong.' They know it. We know it. No amount of massaging or time passing is going to change that," Hall said.

The private Warner is a garrulous, perceptive person who has good instincts about people and politics, while the public Warner carefully parses all emotion out of his official utterances. Part of the fun of being governor is the countless times at bat you get as your team's big hitter, but Warner the Democrat wants to stay in the dugout, where the Republicans can't throw wild pitches at him.

Much of this is about pragmatic politics, of course. Warner can't afford to step on Republican toes, lest they stand in the way of the truly important things he wants passed this session, such as landmark reform of the state's information technology (IT) system. IT reform is a Republican idea if there ever was one, saving state government about $100 million annually, but the administration is already nervous about Republican lawmakers gutting it -- because they can, if for no other reason.

The problem with passive politics is that it doesn't win anything in the long run. With no clear voice speaking from the top of the party, Virginia Democrats are drifting, not a good thing in a legislative election year.

In recent weeks, Warner has invited well-known Democrats -- a former governor, a legendary ex-legislator from Roanoke, two partisan newspaper columnists -- to the Executive Mansion for brainstorming lunches. Some said they were struck by his venting about how helpless he felt, given the party's emaciated condition down the block at the General Assembly.

All the more reason for Warner to step out a little. Venting to pals in the privacy of the mansion won't rescue the Democratic Party that got him there in the first place.