Bob McDonnell's Mistake: A Problem Beyond Virginia

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"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.

McDonnell is, or was, a rising star in the GOP. He helped rescue the party from its doldrums in November when he won Virginia's governorship, wresting it from two successive Democrats. He delivered the GOP's response to President Obama's State of the Union this year and was lauded for his performance.

More broadly, McDonnell had briefly come to signify a moderate vision of Republicanism--a counterweight to Sarah Palin's ideological populism, a brand alternative for the GOP that involved a focus on things like jobs, transportation, and education, instead of an aggressive pursuit of states' rights and anti-federalism.

Coincidentally, states' rights and anti-federalism are exactly the sentiments McDonnell is being accused of intentionally playing to be resuming Confederate History Month after his Democratic predecessors declined to.

The proclamation doesn't necessarily discredit his moderate brand of Republicanism, but it doesn't help. Virginia politics has seen some competition for ideology and brand identity between McDonnell's moderation and the more aggressive conservatism of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who, for instance, has opposed anti-discrimination policies on college campuses that apply to sexual orientation, prompting McDonnell to issue an executive order as a countermeasure, warning state employees not to discriminate based on orientation.

In this instance, critics are saying the aggressive paradigm won out. More broadly, this episode will resonate with anyone who has heard grumblings of secession from conservatives of late, e.g. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's suggestion last summer.

McDonnell will inevitably be talked about as a possible vice presidential candidate in 2012. He has reached a level of second-tier stardom in the party, and it seems like a sure thing that he will be a serious candidate for that job. If he's not--possibly because of this week's events--he will at least be listed by the media as a potential selectee. And at that point, as Republicans are gearing up to try to take back the White House, we will hear this story recounted: Republicans could put Bob McDonnell on the ticket, but, remember, he's the guy who implied slavery wasn't "significant" enough to be included in that Confederate History proclamation. And this story will be given more press--bad press--circa 2012, when it's least convenient for Republicans.

It is, as the commenter Cynic wrote in response to Ta-Nehisi's post, possible that McDonnell's "mistake" was an honest one--that he was taken by surprise at the level of backlash. And McDonnell is good enough on his feet, affable enough on stage, that he can overcome this by thoroughly disowning it. He appears genuine. He has a personality, demeanor, and way of speaking that make new audiences believe he is being straightforward. This doesn't, by any means, have to be the end of any higher ambitions he might have.

But for now, McDonnell has played into larger, existing problems of perception that his party was basically getting over--a perception that Republicans are old white Southern racists that still exists, if not among vital independents, at least among liberals writ large. And while that stereotype of Republicans is lazy and unfair, McDonnell has given its advocates something to talk about.

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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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