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THOMAS OLIPHANT

As Virginia goes

WASHINGTON
FOR A FULL generation, the very conservative state of Virginia has been attempting to instruct the rest of the country on the perils of grand political and ideological theory.

With Ronald Reagan's stunning victory in 1980, all the rage in politics was over a supposedly looming realignment in American politics, a fundamental shift to the right every bit as momentous as the lurch during the New Deal and for a spell after Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964.

The very next year, however, Chuck Robb was elected governor, the first of three consecutive moderately conservative Democrats who hoisted a large caution flag in the face of this alleged movement. The next year, conservatives lost working control of the House of Representatives, and in 1986 they lost the Senate.

When Democrats foolishly speculated that they had rediscovered electoral magic with Bill Clinton's election in 1992, it was Virginia that said not so fast the next year with the election of conservative Republican George Allen as governor, foreshadowing the 1994 GOP earthquake that lasted the decade, as did Republican control of the Virginia state house.

And when the post-9/11 politics of fear and war -- mixed with the venomous elixir of so-called social issues served up by the religious right -- both ensconced George W. Bush in the White House for two terms and solidified Republican control of Congress, it was chic to theorize that conservative voters in rapidly growing outer suburbs were again producing the long-awaited realignment.

But in Virginia, this week's election in fact pointed toward moderation and Democratic competitiveness in those very suburbs. First Mark Warner in 2001 and then Tim Kaine even more dramatically this week proved that a red state is not always what it seems. Instead of being increasingly populated havens for megachurch social conservatism and low-tax conservatism, these suburbs demonstrated that they are also places where middle-income adults flock in a desperate search for affordable housing and where they show a deep concern about threats to open space and wetlands, gridlocked traffic, and quality public education.

In Loudon County (Leesburg) and Prince William County (Haymarket and Quantico) and the city of Manassas, places where Bush trounced John Kerry a year ago, Lieutenant Governor Timothy Kaine beat superconservative Republican Jerry Kilgore on his way to an impressive 6-point margin statewide.

Virginia also holds an important lesson about governance in this hyperpartisan era. The uncomfortable truth for those who worship ideologies is that common sense is a more useful tool in facing this country's serious problems than rigid tenets. Back in 1997, the GOP candidate for governor, Jim Gilmore, swept to victory on a promise to eliminate the state's onerous personal property tax on cars. It was great politics, but poor planning left a gigantic hole in Virginia's public finances as a result.

With the state facing a true crisis, Mark Warner and the Democrats got a mandate four years ago to fix the mess. With the Legislature in Republican hands, there was no option but a long campaign to build a coalition across party lines for a solution that mixed some reform with a serious increase in the state tax burden. It worked, but many Republicans could not come to terms with it; Kaine in effect ran for governor to keep the momentum going and was joined to Warner's hip throughout.

As attention properly focuses on Warner as a potential presidential candidate in 2008, the lesson of his tenure is clear for national Democrats. Success at the polls still leaves a stark political reality that demands bipartisan governance if huge budget messes are to be cleaned up and other major challenges are to be confronted.

It is a lesson still completely lost on President Bush, whose last-minute appearance in Richmond last Sunday was irrelevant. For the record, the latest opinion survey -- by the Pew Center -- put his job approval rating at a new low, 36 percent. His support among independent voters is an abysmal 29 percent, and even his Republican rating has shed 12 points this year to 77 percent. At this rate, in the 2006 campaign, he will be the Flying Dutchman.

The only other major pol with numbers that horrendous is egomaniac Arnold Schwarzenegger, who lost on all four referendum questions he used to force California to go through another special election. What began with such promise two years ago has become just another special-interest-coddling administration that is developing many of the features of the Bush presidency.

Like opinion polls, off-year elections are just a snapshot, not necessarily a harbinger. However, they do have a tendency to deflate the expectations of the previous year's victors. In politics, the pendulum is always moving, and once again, Virginia is the primary reality check.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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