In the fall of 2008, Mark Warner dined with a group of businessmen, lawyers and organizers in Washington. Warner, the former of governor of Virginia then running for U.S. Senate, was asked what he thought of Barack Obama, his party’s presidential nominee and strong favorite to take the White House. In not so many words, Warner told those gathered that he loathed Obama, at least competitively: “He’s younger than me.” And he would be president before him.
In the ten years since, Warner has won election and reelection to the senate—but his presidential pathway has darkened dramatically.
One promising potential avenue, however, still exists for Warner: not as a young governor of a New South swing state (Virginia now leans decidedly blue in presidential elections), but rather, that of an establishmentarian custodian of America’s institutions. An MSNBC broadcast on any given night now doubles as homage to federal law enforcement and the intelligence services—institutions this presidency is said to be a mortal threat to.
And of course never far from emphasis is the core national concern of Russia.
Warner’s recent public statements provide a taste.
“It would be at best irresponsible, and at worst potentially illegal, for members of Congress to use their positions to learn the identity of an FBI source for the purpose of undermining the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in our election,” Warner tweeted Friday night.
“I want answers about the Trump Administration’s failure to implement sanctions against Russia that Congress passed last year. These sanctions aren’t optional,” Warner also tweeted. Read closer: “They’re the law of the land, and the President is required to follow them. Period.”
Mark Robert Warner was born in Indiana, raised in Connecticut, and vaulted to prominence in Washington, DC and Virginia. The Harvard Law grad and telecom millionaire, plodding in both his policy preferences and personality, may seem like a faded commodity in the boisterous Trump era. But Warner was floated as a White House occupant for much of last decade after a gubernatorial tenure widely seen as competent and reasonable by observers on both sides. He has been floating himself for the job for much longer. When Warner’s parents visited him in DC in the 1970s, when he was an undergrad at George Washington University, he obtained tickets for them to visit the White House during their stay. But he passed on going himself, remarking: “I’ll see the White House when I’m president.”
Warner was seen as a top-tier potential candidate in the 2008 presidential election. Earlier in the decade, the Washington Post had proposed that the 2008 election could very well be a battle between two Virginians: Warner and Republican Sen. George Allen. Allen’s political career was defenestrated, it turned out permanently, by “Macaca”-gate and the proto-populist Jim Webb. And Warner passed on a run in 2008, for among other reasons, a strong Democratic field led by Hillary Clinton and the 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards—Obama was handicapped below those two back then.
Plus, Warner and his inner circle figured he had time. It turned out to be a mistake—one made by many blue chip politicians and consultants who didn’t realize the novices Obama and Donald Trump would become president on their first tries. The consensus is now “run while you’re hot”—it’s why Ted Cruz made his attempt in 2016, and why Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal (remember him?) surely wish they had pulled the trigger in 2012.
But after years in the political wilderness, including being outstripped in national fame by his friend and fellow Virginian, the even more lo-fi Tim Kaine, Warner’s presidential fortunes could be undergoing a reversal.
Behind closed doors, those who know him say this is a lifelong ambition—and he’ll never fully toss it aside. Now in his early sixties, his position as ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the Russia investigation has vaulted him back into center of national politics.
It is almost surely his last chance.
Might Warner, too, join a Democratic field in the 2020 election that is now likely to exceed 40 major candidates? Signs increasingly point to his entry into the race, and those in his circle won’t dismiss the idea out of hand.
Warner would have a clear, focused strategy: In the era of nightly MSNBC and CNN kvetching about Russiagate, along with the diaspora of conservative NeverTrump intellectuals and financiers, Warner would attempt to become, for lack of a better term, the deep state’s candidate for president. He may seem an unlikely choice to go up against the gregarious Trump. But he could emerge as the true anti-Trump: a low-key, institutionally-supported former businessman who’s actually got a lot of money.
Warner’s endorsement of Gina Haspel for CIA director is a major clue to his potential candidacy, with 2020 possibly shaping up to be a national-security election. From Warner and the perspective of other Democrats, they could be running against a president seeking re-election after being aided by a foreign power. And if saber-rattling against North Korea, and Iran continues, they could be running against a president who embarked upon kinetic confrontation, against broad international consensus, in two separate theaters. Warner would then try to run as national savior, and one who could easily fill the job. Voting against the sitting CIA director, then, was a no-go. Haspel’s bonafides have been assured by major former intelligence officials Michael Hayden, James Clapper, and John Brennan—people who Warner, in a era when politics is literally litigated on television, would need as public advocates on liberal cable news down the line.
Warner’s statement announcing his vote, in no uncertain terms, checked Trump and his allies who have attacked the intelligence community, railed about witch-hunts, and castigated a “deep state.”
“Gina Haspel has served our country with dedication for 33 years. In many ways, her story is representative of the thousands of people at the Agency and throughout the intelligence community who serve quietly, without recognition, and often at great personal risk, in order to keep our nation safe from those who wish to do us harm,” Warner said.
He also made sure to signal his continued partisan loyalty, along with the support of those like Clapper, Hayden, et. al: “I also take to heart the strong support Ms. Haspel has among rank-and-file members of the intelligence community and from intelligence community leaders who served under President Obama.”
On Wednesday, he was treated to a lay-up interview on liberal mainstay NPR to explain his vote. “We’re coming up tomorrow on a year anniversary of the Mueller investigation—I think [we] should put to rest why these investigations need to conclude no matter how much this president tries to call witch hunt or fake news,” Warner said. Americans can not allow such shenanigans to “distract us from getting to the truth,” he said.
Warner also made the point several times in the interview of emphasizing “the law” and that his highest priority is upholding the rule of law.
Warner’s 2020 presidential run would in many ways follow the models of his successful 2001 run for the governorship and 2008 run for senate: gain broad consensus support on the Democratic side, while quietly shoring up his potential constituency’s core institutions against a flawed Republican nominee unable to do so. In the process, the goal would be to peel off Republicans disenchanted with their candidate—especially prominent or wealthy ones; Warner has enjoyed scores of Republican endorsers in all his races. (The name of anti-Trump activist William Kristol’s newly founded (and Jennifer Rubin-endorsed) PAC is “Republicans for the Rule of Law.”)
To seal the deal he would work to run a general-election campaign less caustic and driven by identity politics, to try to close with independents.
The major hurdle to this gambit, all concede, is that the Democratic party has moved left since last decade.
“I think that thinking is why John Kasich will think he and [Colorado Governor John] Hickenlooper together have a path. Nobody wants that ‘centrist’ thing. Nobody outside D.C. anyway,” said a veteran Democratic operative with populist sympathies.
“I think he’d be great,” said a prominent Virginia activist who worked for Warner. “We need him.” But this person worries he simply “can’t win a primary” in a party moving closer by the day to nominating Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.
“Not the guy the Democratic base wants anymore,” a senior Republican aide emails, but notes that “it can change.” For now, however, this person sees a Warner-hostile circus. “Watching these primaries…electability is like a total non factor.”
But others see, slowly but surely, a path coming together. A major conservative activist says this continues to come up: “He IS the deep state’s candidate for president!”
But all agree that the old adage—“every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president”—holds true for Warner.
Curt Mills is the foreign affairs reporter at The National Interest, where he covers the State Department, National Security Council, and the Trump presidency.