The Magazine

George Allen’s Second Act

Can he put a political disaster behind him?

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Richmond, Va.
At the Westin hotel, George Allen and his family bounded onto the stage on the night of the June 12 Republican primary to country legend George Jones’s “The Race Is On.” The tune’s tempo and title seemed appropriate. Allen had just won 65 percent of the Republican vote, yet there was no time for resting on laurels. Democrat Tim Kaine had run unopposed in his own primary, and polls over the last year and a half all told the same story: The Senate faceoff between the two former governors is likely to be close and hard-fought.

Photo of George Allen and wife

And thank you for forgetting 2006.

AP / Steve Helber

Well, the race is on / and here comes pride up the backstretch / heartaches a-going to the inside, Jones’s voice blasted out of the loudspeakers as Allen waved to supporters. The race is on and it looks like heartaches / and the winner loses all. The song is about a man who pursues love even though he always seems to get his heart broken. The lyrics are oddly maudlin for a victory party, though apt enough for the turns in the political career of George Allen.

Now 60 years old, Allen is applying for a job from which Virginians fired him just six years ago. In early 2006, the first-term senator led Democratic challenger Jim Webb by double digits in the polls. Allen had a reputation as a popular former governor and a faithful executor of Bush-era Republicanism in the Senate. There was even talk of an Allen presidential run. But a series of unfortunate events made his reelection bid one of the closest races of the year. Most memorably, at a campaign stop, Allen pointed to a young Webb staffer of South Asian heritage who was video-taping the event and called him “Macaca,” a French slur on dark-skinned Africans—and the staffer put the exchange on YouTube. Allen’s campaign never recovered from the fallout, and despite outspending Webb two to one, he lost the election. The margin was fewer than 10,000 votes.

“I obviously don’t like losing,” Allen tells me in his campaign office in Alexandria. “It’s a humbling experience, and in many respects, you’re starting over again.”

Maybe so, but Allen had a fairly soft landing. After leaving the Senate, he was named the Young America’s Foundation’s Reagan Ranch Presidential Scholar (listed speaking fee: $20,000 plus). Allen also started his own consulting firm, founded an energy policy-focused think tank, and wrote a book titled What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports (“Great book, important lessons, and sound advice from a guy who gets it,” blurbs Ted Nugent). After briefly flirting with running for governor again in 2009—he’d been governor from 1994-98, but Virginia law bars a second consecutive term—Allen spent the next two years stumping for Republican candidates, all the while testing the waters for another go at the Senate. 

Soon after announcing he was entering the race in January 2011, Allen released an extensive policy platform, which he calls the “Blueprint for America’s Comeback.” The phrase pops up frequently in his campaign. “Virginians are fired up, and they’re ready for America’s comeback,” he said in the victory speech in Richmond. Allen often asks the crowds at campaign events if they are “ready for America’s comeback.” The answer is always, “Yes.”

Whether or not Virginians are ready for George Allen’s comeback remains unanswered, and even his prominent supporters seem tepid about his chances in November. Governor Bob McDonnell, campaigning for Allen near Dulles International Airport the day before the primary, said he was “bullish” about Allen’s campaign. At the victory party in Richmond, U.S. House majority leader Eric Cantor offered similarly faint praise: “Allen’s candidacy is the candidacy for the time.”

The truth is that Allen’s 2006 campaign disaster is on everyone’s mind, including Allen’s. So he says he tries to think back to what his father, George Allen Sr., the late, great coach for the Washington Redskins, often said: “Don’t brood over reverses; learn from them.”

Allen learned a lot about campaigning. He had lost focus on organizing at the grassroots, he says, and had taken some voters for granted. He had failed to bring in longtime loyal aide Mike Thomas, his campaign manager in his successful races for governor and senator, until the last few weeks of the 2006 contest, when it was too late. This year, Thomas is back at the helm.

But Allen also learned about self-discipline, staying on message, and not going off-script for a cheap laugh. “I like to make sure that as much as I like to have a sense of humor, to keep it under—” His voice trails off, but I can see what example is on his mind.

“Wasn’t that the lesson of the Macaca incident?” I ask.

He purses his lips, breathes in, and answers deliberately. “It was a mistake. I never should have drawn that young man into it.” Suddenly, Allen smiles, his eyes brightening, as if he’s just thought of something.

“Once in a while I’ll drag someone into it,” he says, as if it’s a good thing. “There are times I will call audibles.” He had done so just a few days before, when giving a speech. He spotted in the crowd a Chinese immigrant and business owner he had met a few weeks earlier. Allen cajoled the man, Kai Zhang, into joining him on stage.

At their first meeting, Zhang had explained to Allen that corporate taxes were now lower in China than in the United States. “Tell them what you told me,” Allen said, pushing the clip-on microphone in front of Zhang’s face.

“I want the United States to do better than China,” Zhang said in slightly accented English.

“That’s just great,” Allen said, slapping him on the back. “I just love that.”

But Allen usually stays on script. His stump speech emphasizes his interest in energy policy and always includes a dig at Obamacare—which Allen describes as a “government takeover of health care.” There are plenty of nods to America’s “entrepreneurial spirit” and the need to reduce federal regulations. And he quotes the typical Virginian as pleading, “Get the government off my back and out of my pocket.” 

Allen often reminds voters of the successful reforms he pushed through as governor in the 1990s: elimination of parole, welfare reform, truth in sentencing. It’s a laundry list of policies from what seems like a political lifetime ago, but the campaign says if the election turns on a comparison of his tenure as governor with Tim Kaine’s (2006-10), Allen will win.

There’s another young, South Asian-American Democratic staffer with a video camera following around the Allen campaign these days. At a senior center in Prince William County, I tell him he has some big shoes to fill. He laughs, but agrees. The more disciplined and focused George Allen of 2012 just isn’t as exciting as he was six years ago. Until he decides to call an audible.

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

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