The night before President Barack Obama is set to make a dramatic campaign swing into his district, Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) is waxing cautiously -- and a touch frostily --about his incoming guest.
"I think in terms of the President, the idea that I'm in lockstep is just kind of silly BS that conventional wisdom pundits get stuck on," he tells the Huffington Post, speaking on the phone in between campaign functions.
It's not that Perriello has deep qualms about or differences with the president. The two get along well personally and on policy matters. And while there would be natural hesitance with bringing a party leader into your district at a time when both the party and the leader are held in poor repute, Perriello doesn't show it. His campaign is bracing for a massive crowd when Obama lands down in Charlottesville at an expected 7:15 p.m. Rather, he's drawing the lines of distinction between because, well, they've been blurred.
"I think at the end of the day I take a much stronger populist position on the need to rebuild America's competitiveness," he stresses. "Whereas, I think the President's team took more of an approach that we just need to nudge ourselves back to 2006. When I look at an area in my district that was in recession before recession was cool, we know that nudging is not enough. We have to rebuild our competitive advantage."
Since the announcement of the president's trip to Virginia's fifth, a vast poignancy has been applied upon the event. Among the many endangered Democrats in the House, Perriello stands out for the vehemence with which he has defended his voting record: a roll call list that includes yeas for health care reform, cap-and-trade legislation and the stimulus. That he remains within striking distance of his opponent, State Sen. Robert Hurt, in the public opinion polls, in a Republican year (and in a district that has traditionally gone Republican) has made his campaign a proxy test for whether the party can run on the platform its passed. .
"I think the Democratic Party should have done more to show clearly that they were the ones standing between a working middle class and a very dreadful place," Perriello says, underscoring the type of calculations that have made his race unique and significant. "And instead of trying so hard to make sure that everyone on Wall Street approved, or watering down policies so much that you can get the elite approval, we should have remembered that we are the party that protects seniors and we are the party that protects the working middle class... Republicans protect the powerful."
"I think that there are those in the Democratic Party who stayed true to that," he adds, after a short pause. "And there are others who just wanted to be a kinder gentler version of the elite consensus."
Where Perriello stands on the spectrum he just drew is clear. Where he thinks the White House stands is, actually, not so evident. Despite the hackneyed narratives tying him to the administration, there have been disagreements between the two parties. Perriello called for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's firing. And if that was too subtle he argued that top economist Larry Summers should go too. He opposed free trade agreements with Korea and Columbia as well as the president's budget (it wasn't balanced). In a vote that has gone relatively un-discussed this past week, Perriello did not back the Wall Street reform bill, on grounds that it did too little to reign in the banks. When asked for a comment about the upcoming rally with Obama, Perriello spokeswoman Jessica Barba prefaced her reply with the following subtlety: "Even though they don't always see eye-to-eye."
And how did she finish her reply? "I think the President's presence here tomorrow shows that this race is winnable," said Barba.
Perhaps so. Or perhaps the meaning of Obama's visit is understood in slightly more complex terms. In 2008, Perriello, like him, represented the beginning stages of an era of Democratic governance meant to be dynamic and restorative. Other House members from that class defended the President's agenda; others took tough votes. But few pinned their hopes on Obama's historical vindication quite like the Virginia Democrat.
Perriello can be quite candid about that weight, however unfair it may be to put on his shoulders. But when asked if, upon reflection, he would have done anything differently during these past two years -- something, perhaps, that would have bettered his electoral chances -- he grew noticeably silent. Nineteen seconds pass.
"In the short term," he finally says, "politicians and political pundits look at a binary: do you win or do you lose? I think what we've shown by clearly outperforming many others who ran away from a populist agenda and being in this race till the finish, I think it already raises the question, if not answering it, that we need to be doing more to stand up for everyday folks and not be quite as worried about kissing up to the powerful if we want to make the case to the American people.
"I think we have already shown that there is a better way to do politics... But obviously we would love the chance to [keep going]."