The Book of Mark

Warner leaves the presidential race.

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Mark Warner

When politicians say they’re putting aside their ambition to be with their family, they’re usually backing out the door. It’s an excuse, something you say just before the police announce they’ve found your freezer full of cash or they have your IMs. So, it was hard for a lot of people to take Mark Warner at face value Thursday as he took himself out of the 2008 presidential race, saying, “This is the right time for me … to have a life for a little while.” No one had a remotely solid alternative story or a reason to be skeptical, but dropping out is just not what politicians do. Politicians run. They run when everyone tells them not to, because they’ve chosen to believe the one person in the room who says they’re Oval Office material.

Warner definitely looked like a man who was already in midrace. His staff carried binders with exact scheduling information, policy positions, and details about donors and local politicos he was about to meet. The Internet-outreach program at Warner’s Forward Together PAC was as extensive as any campaign. “We were definitely building it,” says one of the staffers involved in the effort.

I would have had the immediate Washington reaction, too, but the first thing I remembered was a moment last July, riding across Iowa in a minivan with the former Virginia governor. I was getting ready to interview him for a story, but he wanted to take care of a few personal things first. He called some people and checked in at home. He’d been racing all morning from one small group of voters to another, testing out lines, looking for clues about caucus voters, and ending most appearances with a wince-making imitation of the Terminator: “I’ll be back.” When the governor called home, one of his teenage daughters picked up the phone. Their exchange started out as one of the tug-of-wars parents have with teenage kids—the father wanted a few pieces of information, and the daughter wouldn’t let go of any. The conversation was going on a bit. I was fiddling with my tape recorder, trying not to listen in. The daughter he was talking to has diabetes, and she wasn’t feeling well, which can become a big problem fast, so there was a little more urgency in his voice as he tried to figure out if she was just being a grumpy teenager or if it was something more serious.

There was no crisis, but if Warner, who has three teenage daughters, had stayed in the race, he would have been signing up for at least 15 more months of dialing into his other life from minivans and hotels with dodgy bedspreads and mystery odors. Running for office is a brutal, dehumanizing slog. Warner was coined the “anti-Hillary” on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, which is pretty heady, but being the anti- means you don’t get her fancy trappings—the entourage, big donors, and fancy homes to stay in. You have to suck up to money-raisers, keep talking to the 45 people in a living room, pretending you don’t mind the deaf guy in the back who doesn’t realize everyone can hear his wisecracks. When I was with Warner, he had to listen patiently to a drunken guy who had come over from the bar next door to hang on the governor and breathe out his theories about the Iraq war. What should surprise us all is that anyone stays in.

Whether he had a shot, Warner would have been an interesting candidate to have in the race. He was running to Hillary’s right and saying the kind of moderate things that would have picked a fight with the party’s liberal activists. Party fights are good: They work things out, and the Democrats could use the debate. At one point, Warner said the finger-pointing about Bush misleading America into Iraq wasn’t helpful and that the party needed to move on. He said tax cuts were not a universal evil and that when Democrats talk about taxing the rich, they offend those people who want to be rich themselves someday. He was not a fan of what he called the party’s “class warfare” populism that many Democrats think is the key to winning back the White House.

Immediately after his announcement Thursday, Warner became very popular among candidates who were preparing to fight him in the primaries. Some called him to start the process of winning him to their side. Sens. Evan Bayh and John Kerry made their praise public. The most likely beneficiary of Warner’s departure may be Bayh, who was competing for a similar sphere of donors and activists as a representative of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. As a former governor of Indiana, Bayh can claim executive experience, just as Warner could, and offer the same hope that as a favorite son he could turn a red state into one the Democrats could count on. Thursday, Warner said he wasn’t dropping out of the process. His former rivals won’t let him.