After Doug Wilder upset the odds by taking the “No Blacks Need Apply” sign off the door to the governor's office in 1989, I recall a big supporter of Attorney General Mary Sue Terry telling me, “Paul, we won't need your help in 1993, if Doug can win, any credible Democrat can win.”
As the saying goes, famous last words: Terry suffered the greatest margin of defeat in the modern era of gubernatorial contests, losing by 17.4 percentage points to Republican George Allen. After Barack Obama carried Virginia by a far greater margin than Doug Wilder 19 years earlier, my bet is that a lot of Virginia Democrats, not to mention national party leaders, had a similar thought: If Obama can win the Old Dominion, how can our nominee lose in 2009?
As the saying goes, famous last rites: State Sen. Creigh Deeds and his running mates suffered the worst electoral wipeout of any statewide ticket in modern times.
To quote Yogi Berra, these things are just too coincidental to be a coincidence. Because of Virginia's history, it's understandable that the election of the country's first black president would play with the political minds of otherwise sensible political types who probably never truly believed such a miracle could happen in their lifetimes, if at all.
To a greater degree than we all care to admit, what we think we know are products of perceptions that may or may not be close to reality.
Wilder's victory, then Obama's, apparently created successive impressions that there had been a sea change in Virginia politics. Things long presumed impossible had become reality. Logically, it would have seemed reasonable to presume such 2009 euphoria would have been tempered by the Terry defeat in the aftermath of Wilder's victory. Evidentially not. Perhaps Obama's sizeable margin of victory, compared with Wilder winning the closest gubernatorial race in history, led people to believe the past was not prologue. President Obama has a certain presence and charisma that is catching, not to mention his win was fueled in large measure by attracting 500,000 new voters to the polls.
This so-called Obama constituency, if energized to vote in unity in a gubernatorial contest, would in theory assure a landslide triumph to the lucky candidate of its choice. But only the naive or incompetent political strategist ever would assume such a circumstance would be possible in the real world of politics.
Yet apparently, too many Democratic leaders in Virginia thought all President Obama needed to do was command his voters to march: viola, 500,000 Virginians not otherwise interested in the election stampeding to the polls.
It was never going to happen. Such logic is based on a mindset that's very troubling. But even now many writers around the country are saying Deeds lost in part because the president didn't do enough to get his voters to the polls. First of all, these are not his voters, as if they are on a string awaiting his command. Rather, they're Virginians, like you and I, perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what is or is not in their best interests. What the president recommends, likewise for Sen. Mark Warner and Gov. Tim Kaine, are of course duly noted by their fans.
But the theory that any of them can wave a magic political wand and get Virginians to vote for Deeds, or any other Democrat, is wrongheaded.
How did so many otherwise smart people come to believe in what I call the plantation mentality — that a few people make the rules and then they tell the rest of us how and when to act? The essence of Wilder's win, and then Obama's, was making average people believe in their power to make change, to control their own destiny. The late Sen. Robert Kennedy often talked about how each of us might only be able to cause a ripple, but taken together, those ripples become mighty streams.
In 2009, Democratic leaders were right about a mighty tsunami coming — it just wasn't the flood of voters they expected. The truth is, Democrats took Virginians for granted, believing they had a majority simply waiting to be told what to do. Wilder and Obama ran to overcome this plantation mentality and they succeeded brilliantly — but their own party wasn't paying attention.
On paper, Deeds had all the right endorsements to win those voters who had fueled a terrific run of Democratic victories in recent years. But he and Democratic leaders had learned the wrong message, once again, a generation apart. It's good to have popular political friends. But far better to have a campaign of ideas, which is where the true power in politics comes: capturing the imagination of the people.