Brief Lives May 2006

The Man With the Golden Phone

Before Mark Warner was a politician, he was a wildly successful entrepreneur—and his success as a huckster shows why he may be a formidable challenger for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination

In late December, three weeks before he was due to leave office, I met Warner at the governor’s quarters in Richmond. On his desk was a present he had received for his fifty-first birthday, five days earlier: a wristwatch with “Warner, 2008” inscribed on the face.

Warner can seem wooden in his public appearances—“I’m not a naturally gifted speaker,” he acknowledged to me—his success at hypnotizing the Westin ballroom partnership group notwithstanding. But one-on-one, he’s personable and loose, quite good at putting a visitor at ease. It’s easy to picture Warner comfortably relating to folks from all walks of life. In Richmond, he plays basketball with delegates—he’s known for his sharp elbows—and sometimes drinks beer with them as well. Diffidence is a crippling quality for both salespeople and politicians; Warner seems to have none.

Warner told me that his “value-added” in the political arena is his hands-on experience on the frontiers of the “New Economy.” He said he has seen firsthand the importance of innovation and entrepreneurialism, and believes staunchly that both of them must be nurtured and promoted by government.

Although this sounds a bit like a campaign commercial—or text from a corporate brochure—flagging his business experience is one way for Warner to separate himself from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Indeed, as a successful entrepreneur, a fiscal conservative, and a social-issues libertarian (he’s pro-choice on abortion), Warner would seem to fit fairly comfortably into the moderate wing of today’s Republican Party. Many of his friends in the high-tech community—some of whom donated more than $100,000 to back his gubernatorial campaign—are either political independents or outright Republicans.

But Warner told me that he has long seen the Democratic Party as the one more committed to expanding the economic pie and ensuring that everyone gets a slice. When he was at Columbia Capital, his politically less-committed partners teased him about insisting on hiring at least one support staffer on affirmative-action grounds. His rhetoric revolves around “Third Way” ideas to give everyone—through first-rate, equal-opportunity education—a fair chance to participate in our evolving information-based economy.

In Virginia, which has not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, Warner governed as a pragmatic, results-oriented centrist. Notably, he persuaded a Republican-dominated legislature to pass a landmark fiscal package that raised the sales-tax rate and boosted spending for public schools and law enforcement. “Politics is the only business I know of where doing nothing other than making the other guys look bad is an acceptable outcome,” Warner says. “That would never pass for success in the business world.”

As for Warner’s presidential aspirations, many of the abilities that he displayed as an entrepreneur translate directly to the building of a successful campaign: he is accomplished at networking, fund-raising, lining up backers—anything that gives him a chance to bend an arm or two. (Former DNC Chairman Don Fowler, a Warner enthusiast, says that the prospective candidate is now doing “what he has been doing [for] a long time—raising venture capital,” only in this instance, “he is the product.”) His pragmatism and deal-closing abilities can only help him as he seeks the support of the Democratic Party’s notoriously heterodox interest group leaders. What’s more, Warner has had time to hone his message and widen the appeal of his “brand”—as adviser Nigel Morris calls it—before entering the national spotlight, an advantage that the well-defined and politically polarizing Hillary Clinton conspicuously lacks.

Whether Warner can sell himself to the American voter—which is in no small part a matter of selling his life story—is a different question. Warner’s cellular-license-flipping exploits undoubtedly will draw some pointed questions from the national press corps. But then, too, Hillary Clinton will probably have to explain, once again, how she managed, long ago, to pocket a tidy sum by trading cattle-futures contracts. Americans, in any case, seldom resent a politician’s wealth. Back in 1976, they elected a millionaire peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, who was also, like Warner, a one-term governor of a southern state. Behind every great fortune, Americans tend to believe, is the story of a winner.

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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

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