Virginia Demolition Derby

June 13, 1991

The Democratic Party has so few officeholders with demonstrated national leadership credentials, including ambition, that it can hardly afford to waste any. It appears, however, that two of them are destroying each other. We mean Virginia's Gov. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles Robb.

They have been swapping charges involving improper, unethical and perhaps illegal behavior. The latest headline-maker is Governor Wilder's charge that Senator Robb had possession of intercepts of private Wilder telephone conversations, which he was showing to leading Democrats in an attempt to harm him. Before that there were Senator Robb's accusations that Governor Wilder was improperly using the state police to investigate the senator's private life and leaking stories to the press about it.

Either, if proven, would cast serious doubt on the leadership qualities of the man involved. In fact, it appears that federal and state law enforcement officials are looking into possible criminality on behalf of Senator Robb's staff, if not the senator, himself. Many followers of national politics believe Senator Robb has been taken out of the presidential sweepstakes for 1992 by drug- and sex-related revelations that the governor may have leaked. Many observers also believe that Governor Wilder could end up being seriously hurt in 1992 by the nature of the feud. Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, said, "Virginia . . . the mother of presidents . . . is pregnant again. But she's already had one miscarriage -- Robb -- and she may even have a second." Senator Robb's own metaphor for his relationship with Governor Wilder is "political demolition derby."

Senator Robb has long been thought of as a good choice -- geographically and philosophically -- to position the party to compete with Republican presidential candidates. Governor Wilder acquired the same reputation when he was elected governor in 1989 as a moderate. If a black politician could bring white and black voters into a winning coalition in Virginia, why not in the nation? That's a question many Democrats -- including especially Governor Wilder -- have been asking recently.

Lately, however, as Professor Sabato's wry comment suggests,

the notoriety of the Robb-Wilder feud has taken some of the luster off the governor's campaign. Of course, it is not just local personality conflicts and politics that raise the possibility of another "miscarriage." The presidential obstacle course often exposes looks-good-on-paper candidates. Remember Gary Hart and Joseph Biden? Governor Wilder has also committed some gaffes in his speech-making around the country and the world. If Governor Wilder doesn't have what it takes -- and this is true for all their would-be presidential nominees -- the Democrats need to find out now rather than later. That is why, distasteful as it may sound, the sooner the Democratic presidential campaign begins, the better.

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