Monitor Breakfast with Rep. Tom Davis

Time magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Jay Carney, captured the spirit of Wednesday’s Monitor breakfast with Rep. Tom Davis III of Virginia.

“There's something about retiring that transforms some politicians into non-stop truth-telling machines,” Carney said in his magazine’s Swampland political blog.

Thwarted by the Virginia Republican party in his desire to run for the Senate seat being vacated by John Warner, Tom Davis decided not to run again for the House. As a result, he told the 26 reporters at yesterday’s breakfast, “I feel a great freedom now to speak out.”

In his 12 breakfast appearances, Davis always had something interesting to say. Reporters especially value his vast knowledge of American political history. The story goes that by seventh grade, Davis could name every member of the House of Representatives and his recall for precinct-by-precinct detail of past elections is remarkable.

After serving four years as a Senate page, Davis went on to graduate from Amherst College and the University of Virginia law school. He was first elected to Congress in 1994 where his colleagues quickly recognized his strategic skills, electing him chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 1998. He served in that post until 2002.

Davis was especially blunt on his latest visit with the breakfast brigade, serving up a stark warning to his own party about their 2008 election chances. His comments echoed the contents of a memo he had sent last month to Republican Congressional colleagues. The memo warned that, “without some meaningful changes in direction, the GOP is heading for losses bordering on another twenty seats in the House and up to a half dozen Senate seats.”

While noting that John McCain ran ahead of Congressional Republicans, the Davis memo predicted that “McCain’s coattails will be short” and that “McCain may lose but he’s not likely to collapse.”

The liberating effects of not being a candidate are especially clear when Davis’ assessment of GOP election chances is compared with comments made by National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Cole at a March 3 Monitor breakfast.

“There is no reason we should approach this election with a lot of concern,” Cole told the group. “My biggest single concern in the election is Republican morale,” he said, likening party members to a character in Winnie the Pooh known for his gloomy view of life. To be fair, the outlook for Congressional Republicans has probably worsened somewhat since Cole spoke, given the party’s losses in three consecutive special elections. Still, the general outline of GOP woes was clear when Cole visited.

Davis’ sense of freedom could also be seen in his willingness to joke about the conduct of Senators. House members normally refer to the Senate only obliquely using the traditional diplomatic phrase “the other body.”

“The way it works in the Senate is, the first two years Senators are statesmen, the second two years they are senators, and the last two years they are raving demagogues,” Davis quipped to reporters. Obviously, not a man worried about re-election.

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