On the surface, the announcement that GOP super-operative Ed Gillespie may run for the Virginia Senate seat now held by Mark Warner may smack of the inmates trying to take over the asylum, but there is precedence for the puppeteers of politics dropping the strings and stepping out onto the stage. For example, Ed’s former partner in business, Haley Barbour, acquitted himself admirably as Mississippi governor, by many accounts. And in Virginia, both the new governor, Terry McAuliffe, and Sen. Tim Kaine are former national chairmen of the Democratic Party. Perhaps times are changing, but for years operatives stayed behind the scenes. Unlike other doors in politics, which can seem to revolve between serving on the Hill and serving as a lobbyist, or between being a reporter and a mouthpiece, the barrier between political operatives and politicians seemed much more impenetrable.
In my experience, many operatives lack the ideological conviction of the best politicians. Another way of saying this is that they lack the fire in the belly that sustains those seeking and serving in their endless and often humiliating role of supplicant. And politicians often lack the sense of irony and detachment that guides the best operatives, the ability to think and act without sentiment. In other words, politicians and operatives can make a good pair because they are distinct in their needs and sense of satisfaction, and they can meet in the middle on what they do share: ambition and a deep fear of losing.
I know Ed a bit, and I believe he works in politics to serve not just personal ambition but an ideological one. He believes in things, like conservative ideas of lower taxes and less regulation. These may sound bland, but Ed adds a personal perspective. Having grown up in a working-class family, he believes that the key to restored prosperity lies in a renewed middle class, one that relies on its own work ethic and a business-friendly government, not an expansion of a welfare state. He is, I imagine, rather angry with what he sees as liberals’ condescension to the middle class and what he views as their assumption that only government can solve their problems.
Ed says he believes that beating Warner and bringing Republicans closer to their goal of winning a Senate majority is an “opportunity.” I don’t. Warner is precisely the kind of pro-growth, pro-business Democrat Virginians are drawn to in a state that is becoming more affluent, more technology-focused and more Democratic every year. Before Ed puts himself and his family through an election campaign, he should put his operative’s glasses back on and take a hard look. The operative in him will likely tell his inner candidate to pass on this one.