NPR logo Transcript: An Interview with Mark Warner

Transcript: An Interview with Mark Warner

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NPR interviewed Mark Warner for approximately 20 minutes, a portion of which was heard on Morning Edition. Below is a transcript of the full substance of the conversation. It took place Wednesday, April 19, 2006, at Warner's office in Alexandria, Va.

STEVE INSKEEP: You know the way people are sizing up the presidential race very well, and looking at Hillary Clinton as a front-runner. That being the case, how would you expect that you would be able to defeat Hillary Clinton for the nomination?

MARK WARNER: That assumes that I take the plunge into this race.

INSKEEP: Let's say you did.

WARNER: Let's first of all focus on what I'm trying to do this year, which is how can I go out and financially — and with my time and, hopefully, ideas — support Democratic candidates across the country. I think there is a real sense all across America that things just aren't going right; it's almost in virtually every area, from our fiscal circumstance to our standing in the world to the question of whether we're truly, close to five years after 9/11, more secure. A failure to address the inner relationship, for example, between energy policy and global warming. Across the board, issues that… any one of which could be national catastrophe if we don't get it right, are all coming at us at Internet speed in a way that Americans know we need some change. I think the thing I can do that is most productive to support that change this year is support Democratic candidates at the House and the Senate level, at the gubernatorial level. And at the same time, try to share some ideas about where as a country we need to go. If I decide to take the plunge into some kind of national campaign, that decision would be reached after this election cycle. Now, that being said, I also believe that what… Democrats have got to offer is not simply a critique of this president and this administration, but what we would do differently. And that's, based on my experience as governor of Virginia, my business experience, have been some of the ideas that I've been laying out as I travel the country.

INSKEEP: Which I want to talk more about in a moment. But first let me just follow up, taking your name out of it for a moment, why should Democrats consider someone other than Hillary Clinton, who would appear to be the obvious favorite in terms of name recognition and money and all those things that matter early on in a presidential contest?

WARNER: If there is one thing, if you look back over the last five or six national nominating processes, I think the one thing that's almost always been true, is that conventional wisdom two years out from the election is almost always wrong. And whatever candidate happens to have the highest name ID or money-raising ability doesn't always translate into who is the nominee. And I, for one, particularly at a time when so much is at stake in our nation, so much is at stake in terms of America's ability to once again reassert leadership in the world; I think it would be healthy for America that both parties have a very actively contested nominating process. That's going to make both parties' candidates hopefully stronger, a little more tested in terms of their ideas and in terms of whatever vision they'd offer the American people.

INSKEEP: What's the rationale for what might be described as a red-state Democratic governor?

WARNER: I happen to know one or two of those and let me say not just my background as governor of Virginia but we've got great Democratic governors in Arizona and Montana and Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina, all across the country. And I think what we were able to do in Virginia, is we were actually able to get results. We were able to take a fiscal meltdown where we had close to a $6 billion shortfall, worked to reform our government; we were named actually the best-managed state in the country by an independent survey analysis by Governing Magazine. We had an honest debate about finances in a state that had birthed the anti-tax movement where we actually raised some taxes, lowered others, net-net increased revenues but put in place a long-term financial plan for the state that was overwhelmingly passed and supported, even with a very Republican legislature. We dramatically reshaped our education system where I think in Virginia we are starting to produce the kind of best-educated, entrepreneurial, innovative work force that we're going to need to compete around the world. And one of the things that I'm proudest of, we were able to bring it back to a whole, wide swath of Virginia, small-town Virginia, somewhat similar to anywhere in small-town America, where I don't think we are going to make it in this country if everyone's got to move to a major urban area. We've got to give that hope that the kid who grows up in small-town Virginia — Martinsville, Va. — has a chance to stay in the community they grew up in. We started to crack that code in bringing knowledge-based jobs to some of these rural communities. So the interest that I may be generating as I travel the country, I think is birthed a little bit from, all right, "How'd you make that happen as a Democratic governor in a two-to-one Republican state?"

INSKEEP: When you are talking about cracking that code, you're talking about towns that voted overwhelmingly, huge margins, for President Bush in both elections.

WARNER: Absolutely. And towns that really haven't — from either political party — been offered much hope over the last number of years where they've seen the traditional manufacturing jobs, when you've seen in my state, textile, furniture, tobacco — those jobs disappear. What are we going to replace them with? What we did in Virginia is we changed the education system, put a whole new focus back on those communities that didn't have the best education system and gave them those tools. We put in place the rural broadband deployment in the whole country. It's unfortunate, but America has fallen to about 16th in the world in terms of broadband deployment. Heck, we were the folks that created the Internet — America — and yet we are 16th in terms of making sure that infrastructure is in place for these rural communities. We changed the approach on… economic incentives. You know, if I do nothing else in politics, my best day as governor was about eight weeks before I was done in my term, when in a little town called Lebanon,Va., the kind of town where for the last 20 years, anyone that could leave, left. We were able to bring 300 software-design jobs because we'd made these changes. And the hope that was brought back to that community, the young kids in that high school gym who say, 'Hey, maybe I can actually come back to my hometown and raise my family.' Those kinds of towns — whether they are in Virginia, whether they're in Missouri, whether they're in Iowa — those kinds of towns have been left behind. There needs to be a level of hope that says they've got a future.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that you raised taxes as governor of Virginia. Do you think that it will be necessary of the next president to raise taxes?

WARNER: What I did in Virginia was I cut more state spending than any governor in Virginia history, reformed the operations of government; we still had a structural budget deficit. At the end of the day, we put together a plan that I think not only made our tax code fairer but, yes, did raise more revenues. The question I asked the people of Virginia was, I said I'm the kind of fiscal conservative that believes you've got to pay your bills and meet your obligations. If the state says they're going to support, for example, public education, and not shift the burden down to local governments, we've either got to honor that promise or change the rules. And in Virginia, the people in both political parties said, 'Yeah, we'll take the long haul.' At the national level, I think what we've got to start, particularly as a Democrat, is you don't start on the revenue side. You start on slowing federal spending; you start on bringing the same kind of business practices to federal government. I can tell you as somebody who's spent 20 years in the technology business, it amazed me when I came into state government and found that nobody knew how much the state of Virginia was spending on information technology. We're saving hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of some of our consolidation efforts. The same type of approach could be brought to the federal government. At the end of the day, do you potentially still have to look at revenue? You don't take anything off the table, but you start, like any smart businessperson would, by tightening your belt and looking at how you can actually reform operations.

INSKEEP: When you look at the size of the deficits that the federal government faces — and you know numbers — you think it's likely?

WARNER: I think it's going to take some real heavy lifting that is going to leave everything on the table. I think what Americans want is they want to make sure that… as they pay their tax dollars — and nobody likes taxes, I don't like taxes — but you also want to see a level of service coming back from those dollars. You want to make sure that those dollars are not frittered away. And one of the things that I think Americans have seen, particularly out of this administration, is a lack of competence. Even when they get the policy right, they can't execute. You see it in some of the bungling efforts of bringing on a Medicare drug benefit to your seniors; you see it clearly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; you see it unfortunately time and again in terms of how the war has been executed in Iraq — not based upon our military's performance. I've seen as governor the incredible sacrifice that the Guard, the Reserve, our Active Duty forces have made. But you sure as heck see it in terms of political decisions overriding, many times, our military decisions. So how we bring a level of competence and a trust that the government can actually do something efficiently is going to be an enormous challenge going forward.

INSKEEP: You mentioned competence; I wonder do Republicans have an insurance policy in a way? Because even if voters are unhappy with the way the president has handled Iraq or handled any of the issues that you mentioned, there are millions of voters, it would seem, who are just not going to vote for a pro-choice Democrat — not going to vote for a Democrat because of various positions on social issues?

WARNER: Listen, I am a pro-choice Democrat. I'm somebody that believes a woman's health-care decisions ought to be made by that woman, her family and her religious beliefs. I'm someone that believes that we ought to increase, for example, use of contraceptives, like Plan B. I think it's remarkable that whether it's the Plan B debate right now or the failure to deal with stem-cell research — and I'm a little biased on this one as the father of a daughter with diabetes — that somehow we are having politics outweigh science. I would have never expected that in the 21st century in America that somehow political positions and ideologically driven positions are outweighing science. Now, I know people feel strongly, whether it's an issue about abortion or other social issues. My view is, elected officials ought to state their positions clearly, where they stand, but I found as governor, I spent about 98 percent of my time trying to find ways we could educate our kids, provide good jobs, find a quality health-care system, keep our community safe. Yes, you spend some time on the social hot-button issues, but if you get the other 98 percent of the job right, which is what I think most folks hire you to do, that you can bridge… partisan divides, that you can actually focus on results, you can actually get the kind of consensus that unfortunately is lacking in this country at this point. I think the kind of change we need is not the kind of Washington-style incremental change, but we're going to need in terms of some of the problems we face transformative change. And that's going to take more than the 51-49 kind of Washington split, and that's going to take more than what both sides often times use, the social hot-button issues to divide us.

INSKEEP: You've said previously that you would rather be talking when it comes to abortion in terms of women's health-care choices. What does that mean and how is it any different from what the debate has been?

WARNER: I am pro-choice. I think a woman should have the ability to make that decision. I feel that unfortunately that debate has been waylaid a little bit as advocates and detractors in the debate spend more time focusing on late-term abortions or the so-called partial-birth abortions, which trouble me greatly. I wish we could find a way to prevent those in a constitutional manner. But my sense is, at times, is that the abortion debate, I think the vast majority of Americans are pro-choice but with appropriate restrictions. They don't want to see a third-trimester abortion. They want to make sure that a parent is notified and I supported, for example, a parental-notification bill in Virginia that had appropriate judicial bypass. My hope is that we can move beyond that debate to the real, more important issues of how do we actually look at a woman's health-care issues, how can we increase the use of contraceptive — new, scientifically based — contraceptive devices, so that the need for abortions actually decrease in this country? How we truly can make abortions safe, legal and rare?

INSKEEP: You just used a phrase that Bill Clinton made famous in the '90s.

WARNER: Unfortunately, there are some in the debate who I don't think want to get to a resolution where we actually… decrease the number of abortions. They want to continue to use this as a way to churn the political waters. And that's unfortunate to women across this country, it's unfortunate that it prevents us from, I think, moving forward not only on broader health-care issues but it prevents us from moving forward on a host of the issues that I believe are honestly just more important.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another issue where it would seem that voters are not satisfied entirely with the president's performance but they've been reluctant to embrace Democrats. What would a Democratic president do differently? What could a Democratic president do differently in 2009 in Iraq?

WARNER: First of all, get rid of Secretary Rumsfeld. It's remarkable in my mind that the architect of this war — where we have inappropriate use of intelligence information, selective leaks, no plan for what we do after we take out Saddam Hussein, no ability to actually build any kind of regional effort to find a stable Iraq — is still calling the shots. I for one, as you see now increasing numbers of our very military leaders who have been tasked with doing this enormously challenging job — and by the way, the military has done their job; they took out Saddam Hussein, they took out the command and control of the Baathist Party and the Iraqi army — what they've not had is the kind of support, I think, from this administration that they deserve. What I think we need to do going forward is, we need to look at this through the very pragmatic view of what is in America's best long-term interest. A failed Iraq is not in America's best long-term interest. This I don't believe was about al-Qaida to start with. But now, a failed Iraq could be a haven for al-Qaida, and other foreign terrorists is not in our interest. A failed Iraq that could end up becoming a client state of Iran, a vehicle for Iranian expansionism in the region, is not in our interest. What do we need to do? The one shining spot from this administration is in our ambassador in Iraq, Khalilzad, who is actually trying to force the Iraqis into a unity government where you don't have militia leaders controlling, for example, the defense industry or the defense ministry or the interior ministry, where he's trying to bring in the rest of the region. I think going forward, what we need is a true unity government that where the Iraqi man on the street feels some sense of security. The Iraqis need to step up in terms of their own security forces. And No. 3, we've got to look at how we cannot simply make this an American problem. A regional contact group similar to North Korea, potentially a U.N. high commissioner — some way to have more international responsibility in terms of how we end up with simply a stable Iraq and then how we can then exit the country and leave the country in no worse shape, at least in terms of threatening to America and destabilizing to the region, than before we went in.

INSKEEP: No worse shape? Are you saying maybe we have to lower the bar, lower the standard a little bit to the point where the United States would be willing to get out?

WARNER: I have not been one of those, and I understand the frustration that many Americans of both parties feel. I'm not one that believes we can set an arbitrary deadline. But I think if we don't see the Iraqis themselves come together in weeks, not months, in terms of forming this unity government and then if we don't see measurable progress in months, not years, after this government is formed, then I think have to look at a way to get out. We don't need American troops simply playing referee inside a civil war in Iraq. But we have paid close to 2,400 lives, close to 13,000 American wounded. Our military sacrifice has been enormous. We need to do all we can, and, unfortunately, the window is closing, to make sure that there is at least a stable Iraq. I think the notion that somehow a democratic Iraq was going to lead this widespread democratization effort all across the Middle East.. That… needs to no longer be one of our primary goals. Our goal ought to be what's in America's best interest and that is stable and a way to get our troops home.

INSKEEP: One last thing, and stipulating that you've not announced any decision to run, what do you do at this stage? What does a governor do at this stage to prepare himself for the national stage?

WARNER: I think whether a governor, a senator, any individual that would be even thinking about applying for the most powerful job in this country and potentially the most powerful job in the world, has got to be willing to continue to learn. To be willing to listen to a variety of views, to actually even respect the view that he or she might disagree with. And what I have been doing is, has been not only campaigning for candidates around the country, but I've been sitting with some of the best minds I can — not only on the Democratic side, actually, even some from the Republican side.

INSKEEP: Who are some Republicans you've sat down with?

WARNER: The ones who kind of frighten me the most are some of the ones who've been on the Republican side who have been inside and have seen the level of incompetency and the ideologically driven decisions unfortunately coming out of this administration. Start to lay out a series of themes about where this country ought to head. My sense is, I look at the situation in Iraq and what that has done to America's stature in the world. I look at the issues related to energy and the failure to think about energy in relationship to climate change. I look at the whole question of competitiveness, which goes to the heart of our education system and our health care system. I look at the question of the path we're on in terms of an absolutely failed fiscal policy. It should be an embarrassment to anyone in Congress or this administration that is about to leave our kids and our grandkids with a failed fiscal state combined with a lack of a national savings rate and record deficits both at the fiscal level and the trade level. And all of these problems seem to me like snowballs rolling down the hill, picking up velocity, any one of which could be a national catastrophe. I think it's important for whoever hopes to move forward in a leadership role in this country, that they don't spend all their time simply bashing the other side. I think one of the most offensive things I've heard out of this administration is the Karl Rove-ian comments that he was going to send out, saying Democrats were caught in a pre-9/11 mentality after this administration has not moved forward in Iraq and not moved forward appropriately on homeland security. At the same time, I think the Democrats need to do more than simply bash Bush but lay out how we're going to take on… at least those four major mega- issues. And say to the American people, we have been in tough spots before but the most remarkable thing about our country is the ability, when Americans are called upon to step up, that they will respond to that call. And this president has not made that request. And if we're going to get those issues solved… it's not an American birthright that we're always going to live in the most prosperous country in the world. If we're going to get it right in this knowledge-based world, we're going to need leaders who can have a little broader vision, can see a little bit farther down the road and can lay out with specificity how they will address those issues.

INSKEEP: Who's a Republican you've met with that you've found interesting?

WARNER: I've met with a series of folks who serve this president and most all of them have actually said, "Governor, I'd prefer if you kept my name confidential at this point," just as a lot of the Democratic folks, particularly in the foreign-policy field who I've met with, have said, "be anxious to sit down and talk with you" but one of the things I've found in that world, that most folks want to brief you but they don't want to have their names bandied about.

INSKEEP: Well Gov. Mark Warner, thanks very much.

WARNER: Thank you.

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