A Tale of Two New Governors

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On November 3, 2009, New Jerseyans and Virginians elected Republican governors, sending a message to Washington that they were most unhappy with the status quo. Two former prosecutors, Chris Christie, and Bob McDonnell, were soon inaugurated, and hailed as heroes of the new Republican renaissance. They ran as tax-cutting, job-creating pragmatists.  Their paths diverged quite quickly after that. Christie has kept his head down, battling special interests.  McDonnell has governed with one eye trained solidly on his political future, perhaps as a future vice presidential or presidential nominee. 

Christie started his year with a series of dramatic budget cuts, trying to close an $11 billion budget deficit, and generating considerable anger in the process. ("Christie to suburbs: drop dead," was how one opponent put it.)  

Christie, for his part, insisted that the "special interests" who "have been feeding at the trough" are going to "push back" when they're challenged. "Candidly, I don't care whether I get re-elected or not," he told CNBC. His effort to cut $820 million in school aid drew a fierce response from teachers' unions and a massive rally in Trenton. A proposed property tax cap rankled municipal officials.  Lots of tough battles ahead, lots of potential political fall-out, but nothing at odds with the way he ran, no broken promises, and no major controversies. Christie was elected to knock heads, and whether he's knocking them the right way or not, heads are hurting.

In Virginia, Bob McDonnell's first few months have been embarrassing. Though he's begun to follow through on some campaign promises about education, his three major spikes in publicity have been the result of efforts by his political brain-trust to manipulate emotional and symbolic political trigger points. 

First, he left gays out from an anti-discrimination order. A backlash followed, and he reversed course. Then his staff let an historically tone deaf proclamation on Confederate history month go out under his signature, which was quickly followed by a groveling gubernatorial apology. Then he was accused of essentially re-instituting literacy tests for non-violent felons who wanted their voting rights restored. He backed away.  

The common denominator to all three events: they're not the McDonnell that Virginians voted for -- the "Bob for Jobs" McDonnell who would keep his head focused on the fiscal problems of the Commonwealth, who would avoid the sort of racialized politics that Virginians are embarrassed to be associated with and that he had grown up with -- he wasn't the young adult who wrote a Liberty University thesis that justified patriarchy.  

It's not that McDonnell hasn't done anything else -- he has -- it's that the tone-deaf political dog-whistling has hurt his credibility within his party, and within the political-media establishment that will enable him to keep the rest of his promises. He wants to make Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast. He wants to dramatically raise education standards and work with Democrats. He wants to keep taxes low and make Virginia a job magnet as the recovery begins to create new jobs. 

Part of what ails McDonnell is the lack of ideological diversity and imagination within his inner circle. Then there's a friendship/rivalry with the state's extremely conservative attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, whose support McDonnell needs (the AG gets to decide a lot of things about what the budget can and cannot do, for example) but whose fundamentalist, intolerant image McDonnell does not. Finally, his ambitions, surely, are at odds with the character of the man that Virginians elected to govern them for four years.
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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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