Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) criticized President Bush yesterday for missing an opportunity after the 2001 terrorist attacks to rally Americans around solving some of the nation's intractable problems.
After a speech to journalists at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, Warner said that the country yearned to shed partisan differences after the attacks and come together toward a common purpose.
Warner said Bush could have gathered support for such goals as cutting the federal deficit, increasing energy independence and aiding a struggling educational system.
"I wish and pray that it would have happened," Warner said. "Instead, what we got was that folks like me got a tax break. Most Americans are told to go about their daily lives. And, too often, the only people that were asked for sacrifice were the members and families of our active duty, Guard and Reserve."
He said Democrats across the country have "a lot of frustration" with Bush. But he said his "biggest concern with the president is not any particular policy issue. It is really that chance, I think, of missed opportunity."
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee said Warner failed to grasp the situation.
"Under unprecedented challenges, America united to respond to the 9/11 attacks, and today our country is safer and stronger," said Danny Diaz, an RNC spokesman. "Virginia's governor would be better served to trade in reality, rather than level partisan, political attacks."
In his speech, Warner called for a new national discussion about the role of the National Guard, which he said is being asked to perform two sometimes contradictory missions: fighting enemies abroad and fighting natural disasters at home. He noted that police officers and firefighters are deployed away from their posts to serve on foreign battlegrounds.
"Is our nation truly safer if that key first-responder is guarding an airport in Saudi Arabia as opposed to potentially providing those very, very essential services back here at home?" Warner asked.
The speech, his first at the press club, also prompted questions from journalists about Warner's political plans. As a term-limited governor with six months left, Warner dodged questions about whether he has decided to run for president.
"I'll have a chance to make that decision at some future point," he said, adding that he intends to remain "part of the debate" about the direction of the Democratic Party.
Warner announced the name of a new federal political action committee that could help him pursue that goal. He said his new PAC will be called Forward Together, a name an adviser said was taken from a speech by Winston Churchill.
Communications Director Ellen Qualls said Warner was attracted to the phrase because of "its connection to Churchill, who served as a wartime leader who brought people together."
Qualls said Warner filed papers yesterday with the Federal Election Commission formalizing the PAC. Its first employee, Monica Dixon, who was an aide to Al Gore, will begin working part time this month, Warner said.
Warner has been traveling across the country in his role as chairman of the National Governors Association, a position he will relinquish this month. This weekend, he travels to Arizona for a speech to the state Democratic Party.
If he were to run for president, Warner would face adversaries in both parties with far more experience in foreign policy. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), for example, was ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who also is considering a White House bid, is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The press club speech offered Warner a chance to talk about the war in Iraq, fighting in Afghanistan and national military policy.
"We have seen in Iraq [that] taking out the bad guys, gaining control of Baghdad, was not the most challenging part of this mission," Warner said. "It's been winning the peace in the aftermath. And how do we make sure, and what role should the Guard play in terms of those civil affairs activities after the initial targets are taken out?"