Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Paulytics Files: George Allen

When you follow politics and politicians for a long time, you find yourself more fascinated with some figures than others. Some of them just have names that shout at you; others have different attributes that stand out. Many of us are usually “fascinated” by members of our own party and repulsed by members of the other (assuming you’re not an indie,) but I’m fascinated by pols from both sides of the aisle. In recent years, few politicians have fascinated me more than former U.S. Sen. George Allen (R – VA.)

The first point of fascination is Allen’s résumé, which is enviable. Like all professions, a politician needs a résumé to show to prospective employers (voters.) As with most professions, a résumé isn’t everything but an impressive one helps. But politics is a microcosm of the real world, and so it is a combination of contacts, networking, and the aforementioned résumé that will actually give you a toe-hold. (While having attended an Ivy League institution may actually count against you in some corners of America, it’ll nevertheless impress national-level voters that have themselves obtained an education.)

Sen. Allen has an impressive political “rap sheet” (as I call it,) that once frightened Democrats. He was the one-time favorite son of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the son of a Hall of Fame NFL coach (George H. Allen,) who’d once led the hometown Redskins (Virginia has never had its own football team) to their first playoff appearance in a generation (1971.) Allen is a graduate (with distinction) of the University of Virginia (the Harvard of the Confederacy,) and its’ law school (among the best in the South,) and also (like many pols,) served as senior class president at UVA (as the locals call it to distinguish their institution from the University of Vermont. Oh, the horror of being confused with a YANKEE school!) So, Allen has the vitae without question.

Allen also has a set of intangibles that would make any opponent cringe: he’s smart, funny, handsome, in great shape (like the former high school quarterback that he is,) quick-witted, and gives a great speech. He’s also conservative enough to satisfy the wing nuts of the party while seeming moderate enough to attract his share of “Blue Dog” Democrats. Is that enough? No, intangibles and a great education are a guarantee of nothing in politics. We haven’t talked about the most salient qualification in American electoral politics: money!

If an ordinary citizen with an unrecognized name calls to meet you for coffee (and obviously to ask for a little contribution,) are you likely to say yes even if they share your political leanings? If you’re a well-to-do businessperson with limited time on your hands, probably not. So what’s the best way to get your foot in the door? “Well, my Daddy knew your Daddy and they did business together several times.” That has a better shot than a telemarketing-like presentation. Who wouldn’t want to meet the son of a NFL Hall of Fame coach for a cup of Joe? Among well-heeled Virginians, who wouldn’t write a little check to the son of the man that did so much good for their beloved Redskins? That fact alone made Allen a formidable fund-raiser before he did any networking on his own. In politics, money is like Popeye’s spinach – without it, you’re a ten pound weakling that is easily shoved aside.

As if that weren’t enough to make the guy a Senator, there is Allen’s political experience. Four years out of law school, Allen was elected to a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates (akin to a state House of Representatives) once held by none other than Thomas Jefferson. Allen then went on a string of (ever escalating) one-term gigs: U.S. Representative from 1990 – 92, Governor from 1994 – 98 (Virginia, unlike every other state, only allows it’s governors to serve one four-year term,) and finally the Senate from 2001 – 07.

Allen served just one term in the U.S. House before being tossed by his own party in redistricting. The state GOP then tacitly informed Allen that, had he any ambitions of being elected to higher office, he’d be retiring from the House instead of attempting to cannibalize another seat by taking on a sitting incumbent in a primary. After giving it some, Allen complied.

Once out of office, Allen immediately began campaigning to be Virginia’s next Governor. At first, his candidacy was a long shot. Attorney General Mary Sue Terry had superior name recognition, funding, and was up a whopping twenty-nine points in the early going. Also muddying the political waters that year was widespread voter dissatisfaction with then President Clinton’s health care reform plan (which was on its way to going nowhere,) and then Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. Wilder, the first (and only) African-American ever to head the state, was, at the time, embroiled in a bitter feud with (Democratic) Sen. Chuck Robb. The brouhaha got ugly, including surreptitiously recorded phone calls (a federal crime,) and it eventually contributed to the end for both men.

A contentious political environment in a state that wouldn’t normally elect a liberal as chief garbage collector combined with an unmarried female Democratic candidate who was pro-gun control breeds an electoral beating in the South. Terry came out for gun control in response to an early nineties spike the state’s crime rate. Allen, on the other hand, made a wise political move and instead proposed ending any parole for those convicted of violent felonies. The stark contrast made Terry appear soft on crime, the second “Kiss of Death” for any red state candidate.
On Election Night 1993, the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia spoke loudly and proudly for their Favorite Son. Allen, then just forty-one years old, claimed more than 58% of the vote to win in the state’s biggest gubernatorial landslide since 1961.

After making good on his promise of abolishing parole, the state crime rate dropped dramatically and Allen got the credit. Allen simultaneously pushed through a Truth-in-Sentencing law which required everyone convicted of crimes in the state to serve at least eighty-five percent of their sentence. In addition, the young rising star reformed the state welfare system and set rigid accountability standards in place for public schools. These actions, all decisions adored by the state’s conservative-leaning electorate, made Allen a force to be reckoned with in Virginia politics and set him up for what would be the greatest political victory of his career.

First on Allen’s agenda would be a brief break from elected office. Barred by the state constitution from succeeding himself as Governor, Allen’s choices were limited. Former governors don’t go to the middling House of Representatives (unless they’re from a state that, like Delaware, has only one member in the body.) That left the U.S. Senate and Virginia had no Senate race in 1998. Allen left office with high approval ratings and a reputation as an effective politician who was clearly ticketed for greater things. This meant the Senate was the next logical step, possibly on the way to the apex of American politics: the White House

One great way to build yourself up in the eyes of your own party in preparation for a national run is to become a “giant killer,” a candidate who takes out an entrenched incumbent. Allen found his Goliath in teetering junior Sen. Chuck Robb. Robb, a son-in-law of President Lyndon Johnson (he married Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Bird, in a ceremony at the White House in 1967,) was an impressive figure in his own right. A former Marine and White House aide, Robb had served as Lt. Governor and Governor of the state before taking 71% of the vote in his first race for the Senate (1988.)

A moderate Democrat who helped found the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that helped launch the 1992 candidacy of Bill Clinton, Robb’s political career had suffered at the hands of time. Despite being mentioned as a possible Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate in 1992, Robb’s aforementioned feud with Doug Wilder and an adultery scandal cost him the luster he’d once had among the state’s voters. In the overwhelmingly Republican 1994 mid-term elections, Robb narrowly survived a challenge from Iran-Contra figure (and one-time convicted felon) Oliver North. The narrow win, largely blamed on an Independent (former Republican) candidate, left him vulnerable.

As 2000 approached, Allen quickly set his sites on Robb. The Democrats would almost assuredly nominate their charismatically-challenged Vice President, Al Gore, as their standard-bearer. Despite Clinton’s record of eight years of economic expansion and relative peace abroad, Gore was handicapped by his boss’s scandal-a-minute administration and was not a shoo-in. Political experts were forecasting a close, expensive race (they were correct on both accounts,) and anyone could see that Gore was sure to have short coattails.

Despite being a fiscal conservative/social moderate, Virginians had tired somewhat of Sen. Robb. The Republicans had several seats to defend in 2000, with a near record number of freshmen back on the hustings. The GOP’s freshman class took a beating that year, with several (John Ashcroft, Rod Grams, and Spencer Abraham) going down in their attempts to return. Despite “winning” the White House in 2000, the GOP only managed to pick off one Democrat (Robb.) Allen’s much expected 53% - 47% victory was the party’s high-water mark that cycle.

Once in the Senate, Allen was quickly ticketed for the big time. Just two years in, Allen was appointed to a leadership position, heading up the National Republican Senatorial Committee. As head of NRSC, Allen oversaw a net gain of four seats for the party – good enough to hand control of the chamber back to the GOP after the defection of Jim Jeffords briefly handed it back to the Democrats.

A giant killer with a reputation for fund-raising and solid political skills, Allen had just one obstacle between him and a run for the White House: his 2006 race for re-election. The Democratic pipeline in the state was full, with Mark Warner and Tim Kaine then coming up. But Allen had it all: the cash, the name, the face, and the rep! Who was going to take him out? The path looked clear …

In the end, it turned out that Allen was his own worst enemy. Everyone knows the end of the story. Allen’s train was derailed by his own mouth. Knowing he was being filmed, he referred to an opposing campaign aide as a little known racial slur (“macaca,” an Eastern European slang word typically used to refer to brown-skinned people.) On film, Allen was disrespectful to a young man, S.R. Siddarth, on the campaign trail and many minority voters were put off by his arrogance.

Here’s the thing with racial slurs: if you use one, you’ll use the others, as well. Several former football teammates of Allen’s came forward to accuse the Senator of dropping an occasional “n-bomb” as a young man. Allen lost the race, and his heretofore fabulous political fortune, by 8,805 votes (or less than 1/3 of one percent.) Allen conceded the following day, not even bothering with the recount to which he was entitled under state law.

The man who beat Allen, current Sen. James Webb, was a former GOP (under Reagan) Naval Secretary who’d crossed party lines after one of his sons was called up to fight in the Iraq War. Webb recently decided one term was enough and announced his retirement. Allen was quick to declare that he would again seek his old seat and will likely face former Gov. Tim Kaine, the current chair of the Democratic National Committee. President Obama won Virginia handily in 2008, but the race is rated a toss-up for now. For that, and the end to his once endless ambitions, Allen has no one to blame but himself and his unfailing arrogance.