November 6, 2000
CONSERVATIVE OF THE FUTURE?
George Allen rises in Virginia
JOHN J. MILLER
Republicans around the country stood up and cheered for George Allen when he was elected governor of Virginia in 1993. For the GOP, this wasn’t just another race: It was a huge morale boost twelve months after losing the White House. Virginia is one of the few states that elects officials in odd-numbered years, which means that every other November it receives rapt attention from the political classes anxious for something to talk about. Allen’s victory snapped a streak of three straight gubernatorial losses for Virginia Republicans, and gave the national GOP reason for hope at a time when Democrats seemed ascendant. Immediately there was widespread agreement that Allen, a charismatic conservative, owned a bright future.
Now he’s running against Sen. Charles Robb. This is one of only three contests this fall in which Republicans have a clear shot at a Senate seat currently held by a Democrat. (The others are in Nevada and New York, although the latter is starting to look out of range.) With GOP candidates limping along in Delaware, Florida, Minnesota, and Washington State, it’s not inconceivable that either Dick Cheney or Joe Lieberman will spend plenty of time on Capitol Hill next year breaking tied votes. Virginia may act as a bellwether: If Allen’s returns early in the evening of November 7 don’t look good, Republicans around the country should brace for disaster.
And the stakes may rise even higher. When I sought advice from several prominent conservatives about questions for Allen, one said, “Ask him if he intends to complete a full, six-year term.” The implication was that Sen. Allen might consider running against President Gore in 2004; he’s held in that kind of esteem on the right. “Nobody has asked me that,” said Allen when I posed the question. Then he paused for a moment, wanting to choose his words well. “I do intend to serve my term,” he finally replied.
He probably would serve it out. But Allen, 48, won’t easily escape the speculation that greater things lie ahead. He already has stellar name recognition. His father, also called George Allen, was a famous football coach. Today the moniker strikes a mystic chord of memory among American males, including those too young to know much about the elder Allen but who have heard sportscasters speak of him with reverence. George Allen is the football version of Connie Mack.
Name recognition can cut both ways, of course. Allen wouldn’t be running this year if another famous name-Oliver North-hadn’t failed to unseat Robb six years ago. Many Virginia Republicans now believe North was the weakest candidate they could have advanced, as he galvanized liberals the same way Hillary Clinton’s New York run excites conservatives this year. And it may be a good thing North didn’t win: The Republicans have enjoyed a Senate majority without him, and the Democrats still haven’t found a GOP stock villain to replace Newt Gingrich. North would have been that man. He’d now be facing a tough reelection fight, and Allen would be biding his time until GOP Sen. John Warner retires (apparently not before 2008).
Chuck Robb once showed the promise Allen does now. As an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam, he had a great personal story. He was a moderate governor in a southern state, and some in his party thought he might break the Republican lock on the White House the way Bill Clinton eventually did. And as the son-in-law of Lyndon Johnson-the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia-he was incredibly well connected.
But then there was Miss Virginia, who made the cover of Playboy after claiming a year-and-a-half-long affair with Robb. The senator denied the charge, but did confess to receiving a “nude massage” from the woman in a New York hotel room. The incident undercut his Boy Scout image and ended any ambitions Robb might have had for national office.
Allen’s own ambitions rest on his successful governorship. He abolished parole, reformed welfare, and introduced tough testing standards for education. But his appeal goes beyond his policies. He’s tall, with a genuinely disarming smile; he wears cowboy boots everywhere he goes and chews tobacco so much his teeth are a bit stained. (He laughs when reporters highlight these two habits.) Most important, however, Allen has a tendency to say exactly the right thing, especially to conservative listeners: His favorite Supreme Court justice is Clarence Thomas; his favorite movie is Braveheart; he slammed Robb for supporting Clinton during impeachment.
Allen is devoted to federalism and local control; he refers to Thomas Jefferson in everyday speech the way most Republicans talk about Ronald Reagan. (Allen went to the University of Virginia-founded by Jefferson-for both college and law school.) In 1994, he rejected federal education funding because he worried about the government’s “helping hands” becoming “strangling hands.” He was the only governor in the country to turn down the Goals 2000 cash, which amounted to about $8 million for Virginia, and he overruled his state school board to do it. His defiance eventually crumbled when fellow Republicans, under attack, abandoned him on the issue. He took the money, but won plaudits on the right for his effort. This year, he opposes legislation sailing through Congress to cut highway dollars for states that don’t accept a new federal limit for drivers’ blood-alcohol levels. Allen led a successful effort to do in Virginia exactly what Washington would now mandate, but, he says, “I don’t like the blackmail approach.”
Pro-lifers generally consider Allen a friend for his role in passing a parental-notification law, even though Allen himself doesn’t embrace the pro-life label. “I hold a position of reasonable moderation on the excesses of abortion,” he says. He supports most of the movement’s politically achievable goals, but not necessarily its ultimate ends. His signature issue this fall is a $1,000 tax credit for educational expenses, such as books and computers. (Washington Post news headline: “Allen Tax Credit Favors Wealthy Over Poorer Households.”) The credit would apply equally to kids in public and private schools, including home schools, but it wouldn’t cover tuition. Allen is generally cool to the idea of school choice. He says he doesn’t want it imposed on anybody-local control again-but supports the choice bill benefiting low-income kids in Washington, D.C.
Allen has led Robb in polls from the start, but the senator has narrowed the gap to just a few points. “Robb is a good closer,” warns Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council. Virginia is home to tens of thousands of current and former government workers, who may not take kindly to the Republican’s anti-Washington rhetoric. The Left, perhaps sensing Allen’s national potential, would love to stop him. The NAACP suspended the head of a local chapter for endorsing Allen, and the group has even joined the Sierra Club in paying for ads against him. There’s some concern it might also air last-minute race-baiting charges, perhaps on black radio stations, about the Confederate History Month proclamation Allen issued as governor. In the past, Allen has attracted about a quarter of the black vote. If he does it again, he’s unbeatable.
And if he wins this November, he may be unbeatable for a long time.