Bob McDonnell's Mistake: A Problem Beyond Virginia

"He decided to cut his losses. It turns out that it's one thing to play with revisionism coyly, quite another to embrace it openly. That minor state-level kerfuffles can be forgiven, but not embarrassments on the national stage." -Cynic, discussing McDonnell's apology with Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the comments thread of this post

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the Republican who took back that office for his party last November, made a "mistake," in his own words.

The governor issued a proclamation last Friday that April would be Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia--a practice begun by Republican Gov. George Allen in 1997--and this proclamation did not include any mention of slavery. An uproar ensued. Civil rights groups were enraged; so were black lawmakers.

Then, McDonnell made it worse: he justified slavery's exclusion on Tuesday, saying that "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia."

Now that McDonnell has amended his proclamation--to explicitly list slavery as a cause of the Civil War, and to call it "evil and inhumane"--he has received some praise for doing so, thoughtfully from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who calls this a step in the right direction. Revisionists like to pretend that slavery didn't cause the Civil War, and McDonnell manned up and took ownership of the "mistake," instead of copping out: he didn't issue some kind of "sorry if I offended you" apology--he actually corrected his action, at a time when substantive apologies are frowned upon in politics, and he inserted language about slavery and history that directly contradicts the slight he initially gave it.

But this event will outlast yesterday's and today's news cycles. It is actually a problem--not a huge one, but, as the commenter Cynic noted, a bigger problem than a state-level Virginia flap--for the Republican Party.

Here's why.

The GOP has a problem with being seen as a party that both caters to ignorance and serves mostly the South. I'm not saying that that's true, in such plain terms; I'm saying it is a central criticism of the Republican Party by liberals. Republicans have battled back from the regional-party label, which was slapped on them quite loudly after the 2008 elections, when maps were examined of where the GOP's power base existed.

McDonnell's "mistake" does not help things in that department. Just as the GOP had escaped its Southern-regional label with a win in the Massachusetts Senate race, McDonnell has resurrected that impression. And he has recalled a narrow dimension of Southern cultural pride that is viewed as particularly insidious by non-Southerners: the tacit assumption that slavery is to be ignored in the process of praising the Confederacy. People who aren't from the South already take Confederate pride in general as an attack on the Union--on America--and on civil rights.

Democrats have had a field day with this already, and the timing for Republicans has been bad. The GOP has gone from a few good news cycles about the lack of a "bump" in popularity for health care to a few bad ones about the Republican National Committee's Voyerur scandal and the resignation of its chief of staff, and as the media was beginning to exhaust its exploration of new angles on how bad Steele is at his job and what trouble the RNC is in...this happens.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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