McDonnell operating below the radar on abortion

Odd Dominion: One Virginian's take on state politics.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Photo by James Scheuren. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Photo by James Scheuren.

Trying to pin down Bob McDonnell’s true agenda is, as the old saying goes, like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Since the day he was elected, our helmet-haired governor has consistently portrayed himself as a conservative straight shooter focused on righting Virginia’s economy, with little time for social-issue warfare or backstabbing political gamesmanship.

And for the most part he’s managed to sustain this bland-yet-competent image, due almost entirely to a pair of singularly fortuitous circumstances. On the financial front, McDonnell has benefited mightily from Virginia’s status as an economic ward of Washington, D.C., which has buoyed the Commonwealth’s coffers with ongoing waves of stimulus, military and government contract spending. On the social values front, McDonnell has been fortunate enough to have both a hard-right General Assembly and a rabidly conservative attorney general serving under him, thereby allowing him plausible deniability as some of the most conservative policies in recent Virginia history have been enacted.

But as any student of Machiavelli will tell you, sometimes the king has to descend the throne and get his hands dirty. And there’s no doubt that McDonnell is willing to mix it up a little when his preferred outcome seems threatened.

The most recent example of this involves one of the most politically divisive subjects around: abortion. As many of you certainly know, in 2011 Virginia’s Assembly passed some of the toughest abortion clinic regulations in the country, mandating such random things as hallway width, exam room size, and the number of parking spaces, along with requirements for medical procedures, inspections, and record-keeping. Unsurprisingly, these new regulations affected every one of Virginia’s 22 clinics that provide abortions, necessitating changes so extensive that many—if not all—would be forced to shut down.

But then, in a twist worthy of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, Virginia’s Board of Health—which had signed off on the new regulations shortly after they were passed—did an about face in June and declared that the rules did not apply to existing facilities.

This unexpected interpretation, as you might imagine, did not please Virginia’s vehemently anti-abortion AG Ken Cuccinelli, who immediately issued a terse letter declaring that “The Board does not have the statutory authority to adopt these Regulations.”

This unusual move by Cuccinelli effectively kicked the ball upstairs, since the opinion of the AG’s office is simply the first step in a long review process. But here’s where McDonnell’s particular brand of political craftiness kicks in.

See, most state executives would take one of two paths: Either uphold the AG’s unorthodox order, thus pleasing their conservative base, or side with the board, thereby affirming that precedent and good governance remain paramount. But McDonnell has, as he so often does, left himself with an insidious third option.

Ever since the original board vote, McDonnell has quietly been packing the Board of Health, adding a total of three new members—including an anti-abortion doctor who helped draft the original regulations. So it would not surprise us at all if the governor simply slow-walked the entire process, leaving existing clinics in limbo while gradually trying to shift the makeup of the board toward his preferred position. Then he could ultimately send the whole thing back to the board and—surprise!—be rewarded with a decision that is more to his liking.

Of course, we could be wrong. But as a swing state governor with national aspirations, we’re betting that McDonnell goes with door number three.