Are Republicans Ready for Another George?

Posted March 25, 2005 at 2:18pm

While many Republicans and Washington insiders seem focused on Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist’s impending bid for president, my attention is somewhere else, a little bit to the northeast. I’m watching Virginia Sen. George Allen.

For many, Frist is the early favorite for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination because of his role as Senate Majority Leader, his fundraising potential and his connections with both the party’s social-conservative and business wings. [IMGCAP(1)]

The Tennessee Senator, who won’t be seeking re-election in 2006, will have ample time to prepare to run for president and has the credentials to be a serious contender.

But if party activists think that President Bush has found the winning formula and is just the kind of candidate the GOP needs next time to retain the White House, the junior Senator from Virginia could well turn out to be more to their liking.

Allen, it should be noted, deflects talk of 2008 by insisting that he is directing his efforts at his 2006 re-election and isn’t looking past that contest. Of course, that’s what politicians often say, whether or not they mean it.

Sure, if Democratic Gov. Mark Warner decides to challenge Allen next year, the Republican will have to focus all of his energy on his bid for re-election. But if Warner decides, as most insiders expect, not to challenge Allen, the Republican isn’t likely to draw a top-tier opponent.

Allen has hired highly regarded campaign manager/strategist Dick Wadhams to run his Capitol Hill office, and Republican insiders believe that the Senator clearly has bigger ambitions than the Senate.

Allen served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee last cycle, and that undoubtedly added to his national political and fundraising contacts and earned him a few chits from Republicans after gaining Senate seats last year.

A former Virginia state legislator and one-time governor of the commonwealth, Allen is the son of the late George Allen, a Hall of Fame head coach of both the Washington Redskins and the Los Angeles Rams. That interesting biographical note could attract some voters and give the Senator a bit of celebrity appeal.

Allen’s greatest strength — and his greatest potential weakness — is his similarity to the current president of the United States, and to an earlier Republican occupant of the White House, Ronald Reagan.

Like Bush, Allen projects a “regular guy” persona. He is friendly and outgoing, seems like a picture-perfect family man (with an appropriately attractive wife) and sounds right for a party that likes its nominees to be unapologetically conservative. He is, to use a word that has rightly fallen out of favor in writing, “nice.” He is the kind of person you’d like to be your neighbor.

One longtime watcher of Allen argued convincingly with me that Allen isn’t as much another Bush as he is another Reagan.

“Bush has that swagger, while Allen is disarmingly approachable,” said the Allen-watcher. “Allen has an ‘aw shucks’ affability and the ability to take complex issues and break them down to the average person. He doesn’t strike people as an intellectual, but he’s a very smart guy. He’s simply been blessed with the talent to connect with people.”

Conservative groups do like Frist, and depending how he handles the confirmations of Bush’s judicial nominees, they may line up behind him. But the Tennessee Senator is clinical in his approach of politics, far more detached than Allen. Republican activists will respect Frist, but it’s unclear whether they will truly like him.

Like some of the more successful conservative GOP candidates over the years, from Colorado Sen. Bill Armstrong to the current President Bush, Allen is a conservative who doesn’t seem threatening or mean-spirited. But when it comes to taxes or foreign policy or so-called social issues, the Virginia Senator should be more than acceptable to his party’s most conservative constituencies.

Democrats are likely to criticize Allen the way they have Bush, as a lightweight who is too ideological and too unsympathetic to voters who don’t fit the Ozzie and Harriet stereotype.

It’s true that Allen may strike many observers as not particularly a deep thinker, and he sometimes falls back on platitudes that, while they generate applause from true believers, don’t demonstrate depth. But that quality did not stop the current occupant of the White House from winning two presidential elections, so it may not be disqualifying.

Of course, the Virginian still has a couple of years to demonstrate a command of the issues, to grapple with tough problems and to build a set of accomplishments on Capitol Hill.

Voters often tire of a particular type of politician, preferring to replace a president with one style or profile with someone very different. If Republicans (and Americans at large) decide that they want a third term for George W. Bush (or even Ronald Reagan), then Allen would be an obvious alternative.

But if Republicans, or the voters at large, want something different, Allen’s similarities with the president could be an impediment to his nomination or his election.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.