Commentary

Last-minute Liberalism

This article appeared in the DC Examiner, January 27, 2006..
It’s official: Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner is running for president.

No, he hasn’t announced his candidacy. But he’s ditched his “aw-shucks, Ah’m just a country boy-businessman” shtick (complete with a bluegrass song from his 2001 campaign proclaiming to the mountain folk, “Get ready to shout it from the coal mines to the stills/Here comes Mark Warner, the hero of the hills”).

In the weeks following the 2005 election and before he left office, Warner ordered the review of thousands of old criminal cases in the light of new DNA testing. Then, before Christmas, he issued an executive order barring discrimination against gays in state agencies.

Liberal Virginians hailed “another great move by Gov. Warner,” in the words of a Web site supporting Tim Kaine. Such writers might well have asked why it took Warner four years to protect gays and investigate claims of innocence by Virginia’s prisoners.

But they wouldn’t ask because the answer’s obvious: He waited until after the election. Now, since Warner was barred by law from seeking a second term, you might wonder why he couldn’t have started doing the right thing back in January 2002. Apparently Warner regarded the election of his lieutenant governor to succeed him as the equivalent of a re-election. He’s a far better candidate for president now that he’s a certified electoral success in Virginia.

So now he’s moved on to his next step: seeking the Democratic nomination in 2008. And thus the new moves, likely to be more popular with Democratic primary voters than with Virginia’s conservatives.

Warner’s post-election liberalism is reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton’s actions just after the 2000 election. Clinton wasn’t running in that election, but Vice President Al Gore was seeking to succeed him and his wife was running for the Senate in New York. Thus Clinton was still in full campaign mode until the November election.

When the voting was over, Clinton launched one final public relations offensive, to burnish his credentials as a supporter of liberal causes. In the first weeks after the 2000 election:

  • Clinton told Rolling Stone that small amounts of marijuana should be decriminalized and that mandatory minimum sentences for drugs should be re-examined.
  • He disavowed his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy restricting gays in the military and said that the Boy Scouts were wrong to ban gays.
  • He put the District of Columbia’s “Taxation without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine and declared his support for D.C. statehood.
  • He hosted a White House screening of a new pro-gay documentary, “That’s a Family!”
  • He pardoned two women who were serving long prison sentences for minor drug crimes.

Clinton seemed to be making an effort to appeal to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But liberals must have wondered where he had been for eight years. He spent most of his time in the White House giving us “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Defense of Marriage Act and twice as many marijuana arrests.

Civil libertarians who hoped a former constitutional law professor and child of the 1960s would defend individual rights were disappointed after Clinton’s election. American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen wrote in a book for the Cato Institute at the end of his tenure that a “single essay cannot do justice to the injustices that the Clinton administration has perpetrated through its far-ranging assaults on free speech and privacy.”

And unlike Warner, Clinton didn’t actually reverse any of the policies that exercised his supporters. Gays were still being discharged from the armed services. Marijuana users are still being arrested at a record rate (which has continued to rise under the Bush administration). The administration did not stop trying to censor the Internet and wiretap e-mail. Federal databases continued and exchange more information about us every year. So his belated civil liberties rhetoric was just that - rhetoric.

However, Warner at least put a little meat on the table. His post-election executive orders actually changed policy. Maybe in mid-November 2008, after the next election, President Bush will rediscover his inner conservative and start issuing executive orders to freeze federal spending, rescind appropriations, roll back regulations and reverse some of the myriad orders he and Clinton imposed during the past 16 years.

He could do those things before the election, of course, but in November 2008 he may be busy helping his vice president or some other Republican to succeed him.

Of course, if his rival John McCain is the Republican nominee, Bush may just decide to announce his most controversial decisions in October 2008.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.