Exit stage right: The inscrutable end of the McDonnell era


Bob McDonnell. File photo. Bob McDonnell. File photo.

Boy, how time flies, eh? It seems like only yesterday that we were appraising the electoral chances of a well-coiffed up-and-comer named Bob McDonnell, who had recently resigned as Virginia’s attorney general to take a shot at the top slot. Our take then was that McDonnell was doing a great job of flying under the radar while his Democratic opponents beat the tar out of each other. His eventual victory, we surmised, was a triumph of astute rebranding, in which a committed social conservative sold himself as a moderate, and in doing so gained the governorship.

What we got wrong, however, was exactly how McDonnell would comport himself in office. We fully expected that, having won, he would move quickly to the right, and govern with the sort of insipid-yet-ruthless brio that has turned Wisconsin’s doughy doofus Scott Walker into a Tea Party hero.

But no, Governor McDonnell turned out to be a less antagonistic (and, to his credit, more conciliatory) chief executive than that. While he certainly signed his share of right-leaning legislation (including bills intended to increase the difficulty of providing abortion services and weaken Virginia’s already lax gun laws), he also proved surprisingly accommodating on some Democratic priorities (like restoring felons’ voting rights) while eschewing the sort of hyperbolic anti-Obama rhetoric that rings out regularly from the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

But to what end? We have always assumed (and still do) that McDonnell governs with one eye firmly on the future, and desperately wants to be a contender on the national stage. But in this effort he has been consistently stymied, for reasons that must seem, to him, frustratingly opaque. After all, he is a fairly popular governor of a crucial southern swing state, and yet he was barely mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick in 2012, and is completely absent from most lists of the nascent 2016 GOP presidential field.

Which is probably why, as he struts and frets his final hours upon the stage, our governor seems to be short circuiting, throwing out liberal, moderate and conservative positions like a broken toaster ejecting burnt slices of bread.

This final phase of McDonnell’s gubernatorial career began with his hard-fought transportation bill, which incensed many conservatives by raising taxes (and, in a side deal with Democrats, accepting an expansion of Medicaid under the much-despised “Obamacare”).

But then, after having the constitutionality of the bill questioned by his attorney general (and uneasy heir apparent) Ken Cuccinelli, McDonnell tweaked it so that the new taxes would be assessed by population and transportation metrics instead of regionally as originally planned. And then, obviously still worried about protecting his right flank, McDonnell made sure to offer an amendment that would bar abortion coverage from any insurance plan offered through the Affordable Care Act, and also signed a bill that will force Virginia’s voters to present a photo ID before exercising their constitutional right to vote.

And so it goes. Whatever he hoped to accomplish, it seems that Governor McDonnell will finish his term exactly as he began it: as an amorphous cypher, trying desperately to straddle both sides as he climbs to a higher political plane. Will he actually make it? We’d love to say no, but —having watched him every step of the way —we’re sure of exactly one thing: with this guy, you can never say never.

Bob McDonnell’s time in the governor’s mansion will soon be up, and his political future
is murky.

It seems that Governor McDonnell will finish his term exactly as he began it: as an amorphous cypher, trying desperately to straddle both sides as he climbs to a higher political plane.

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