Acknowledging that Republicans command a national political majority, Democratic Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner said Thursday that his own party needed to do far more to appeal to moderate voters and to offer alternatives to President Bush’s policies -- not just block them.
Warner, who is in his final year as governor and is considered a possible 2008 presidential contender, argued that Democrats could not simply cater to their liberal base if they were to succeed politically on a national scale.
“While we have to do all we can to activate every person who is part of the traditional Democratic family,” Warner told a group of Los Angeles Times reporters and editors, “ultimately we also have to go and convince some folks who have been voting Republican.”
His comments come at a time of turmoil among Democrats over the state of their party, which is groping for direction after decisive losses in 2004’s presidential and congressional elections. Warner comes down squarely in the camp of those who say the party must reach to the center to expand its base beyond the 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, that Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry won in the 2004 presidential race.
Warner -- who is thought to have presidential potential because of his bipartisan accomplishments as a governor in the South -- said that his party’s positioning on social issues had left rural and small-town voters with a “sense of some Democrats’ belittling their lives, their culture and their values.”
He said he experienced that sentiment during a trip to California, where he felt that some people were condescending because he came from Virginia.
“ ‘You little Virginia Democrat, how can you understand the great opportunities we have?’ ” Warner said in characterizing the attitude he encountered. “I came out saying, ‘That’s why America hates Democrats.’ ”
On policy matters, Warner suggested that congressional Democrats would benefit from a different approach in dealing with Bush. On issues including Social Security and healthcare spending, Democrats have mostly staked their ground this year in opposition to Bush’s policies, rather than by offering alternatives that acknowledge a need for change.
That is a mistake, Warner said. He cited Democrats’ adamant opposition to slowing the growth of Medicaid -- the federal-state healthcare program for the poor -- whose costs are skyrocketing.
“We ought to be more about offering some solutions,” he said. “We can’t just say ‘no.’ I don’t want cuts, but I do know we’ve got to change the way we deliver healthcare” under the program, Warner said.
The governor was open to discussing policy alternatives often shunned by liberal Democrats because they involved shifting more financial responsibility onto individuals. Among the options he said should be looked at: encouraging individuals to rely on private insurance rather than Medicaid to cover long-term care; limiting subsidies for expensive treatments such as hip replacements for the very old; and preventing employers with young, healthy workers from dropping out of insurance risk-sharing programs.
Warner was not specific about what he would do to deal with Social Security’s long-term financing, except to say he thought that shoring up Medicare and Medicaid were much more urgent.
Still, he said that Democrats sometimes were too wedded to defending the New Deal-era retirement program without considering how it might be improved for current conditions. “The program itself becomes sacrosanct, rather than what the goal ought to be -- how do we protect folks in their senior years,” he said.