From McDonnell, a Turn on Sexual Orientation

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?  Last night, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart broadcast a pretty devastating take-down of the anti-gay initiatives being undertaken by the new governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, and his anti-gay attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.

Now, the Daily Show did not get the context exactly correct: Cuccinelli and McDonnell aren't that close, and McDonnell has been advised to avoid being associated with some of Cuccinelli's moral badgering. (See here.)  Based, he said, on Cuccinelli's advice, McDonnell amended an executive order barring state employees from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and removed that clause.

Today, he issued an "executive directive," and the language about sexual orientation is back in. Executive Directive One.pdf. (Note: the executive order -- which carries more force -- still doesn't include sexual orientation, but McDonnell's directive instructs the state to treat it as if it did.) 

In a letter to state employees accompanying the executive order, McDonnell's chief of staff attempts to explain the walk-back on gays, obliquely:
While the separation of powers doctrine precludes the Governor from changing the Virginia Human Rights Act via Executive Order, he wants to be clear that discrimination in state employment will not be tolerated.  As the chief executive officer for the Commonwealth, the Governor wants to establish a clear standard of conduct ensuring that all cabinet members, agency heads, managers, supervisors and employees of the Executive Branch understand and enforce state and federal law prohibiting employment discrimination.  Independent agencies and state supported colleges and universities should likewise adopt a similar standard of conduct.
Note the mention of "state supported colleges." That's a direct repudiation, it seems, of Cuccinelli's opinion that state supported colleges must respect the government's anti-discrimination policies, which, for a brief period until today, noticeably did not include protection for gay people.

The Daily Show's broadcast did not cause the change -- which will probably stun some of McDonnell's supporters -- but it may illustrate the degree to which Republicans, who want McDonnell to be a presidential contender at some point, are anxious about his image as a culture warrior. 

There are lots of proxy battles here, but McDonnell didn't have to issue the directive -- and he did. It remains to be seen whether independent voters, who don't want to admit voting for a governor who seems anti-gay, will give him credit for it. I predict that McDonnell will get no love from the gay rights community, but in truth, McDonnell's political thinking, to the extent that it contributed at all, doesn't really incorporate the gay rights movement. On the other hand, it does say something that the very conservative Republican governor of Virginia understands that it does not look good to be seen as endorsing discrimination against gays.

Thumbnail photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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