McDonnell's Gaffe: In a Black and White World, Blame the Pinks

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Virginia's Gov. Bob McDonnell is getting the lion's share of the blame for his Confederate history proclamation blunder, and rightly so. To me, though, the gaffe exposes a problem that is endemic to the Republican Party in certain parts of the country. No, I'm not talking about race, or the Southern strategy, although the party loves to pick at those scabs. I'm talking about shared sensibilities.

Consider this term: "the pinks." It's a new term that I've heard some weary Republicans use to refer to the party's professional political class. Light-skinned, pasty, pudgy--pink skin color--the hacks, the enablers. Republicans with limited fields of view; Republicans with little imagination; Republicans who are obsessed with trying to figure out the complexities of their base and who can't think beyond the immediate moment, even when they're trying to think about future actions. McDonnell's close circle of advisers may or not be pinks, but they're not a terribly diverse lot, intellectually, ethnically, or otherwise. In fact, many potential presidential candidates surround themselves with people who look like them and think like them, and are afraid to bring into the fold people who will challenge their sensibilities.

In Virginia, it's true that a not-small segment of the population demands candidates who can speak the coded language of historical empathy. They tend to overlap with highly active gun rights voters. Previous Virginia governors have had various degrees of success with this group; George Allen was perhaps the most successful. Even Democrats have to deal with them; nailing down enough support in rural Virginia required geeky technologist Mark Warner to sponsor a NASCAR vehicle. That's the past, though, and Virginia's demographics are changing. GOP politicians with national ambitions can only go so far down the route of respecting Confederate heritage. Does McDonnell care about Confederate heritage? There's evidence that he knows how to pander. But he's more serious now, in theory. He handed the issue off to his staff, and he ended up with a proclamation that is, to say least, tone deaf. What happens in Virginia doesn't stay in Virginia. And Virginia Republicans will be held to a higher standard on racial issues, as perhaps they should be.

Ironically, McDonnell's gubernatorial campaign manager was Phillip Cox, an able Virginia political veteran who  is well-attuned to the sensibilities of Northern Virginia voters. He's not in the administration; instead of becoming McDonnell's chief of staff, Cox runs his PAC. McDonnell takes advice from major party figures like Ed Gillespie, but Gillespie wouldn't have known about the proclamation. (Gillespie would have thrown himself in front of the door if he had any inkling that the proclamation was coming out.)

Inside the administration, Tucker Martin, McDonnell's communications director, presumably knew about the proclamation. He also knows about Virginia's history, and the complexities the state's Republican Party has had with race. McDonnell's chief of staff, Martin Kent, worked as a colleague of McDonnell's in the AG's office. He shares a mindset with his boss, and comes from a similar background.

Hundreds of proclamation requests come in every year. A functionary in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth prepares them (usually verbatim from language sent by the sponsoring organization) and the governor's signature is auto-penned.

Then, if there is any heat, a governor always feels obligated to defend the proclamation, because they don't want it to appear that they aren't reading what they are supposedly signing.

There's usually some filtering mechanism, though.

When your top advisers come from the same place and have the same type of background and credentials, stuff like this happens. The filter fails.

A wise Virginia Republican told me that McDonnell is smart enough to "get" stuff like this, as his eventual response demonstrated. But it is worrisome that his staff would make the collective assumption that they could effectively dog-whistle.

"You and I know that is not realistic, given his high national profile and the sensitivity of any civil rights related issue, and but they are just getting used to their status of a national figure and a potential future national candidate," this Republican said.

If McDonnell wants to be a Big Time Republican, he'd better get used to this sort of scrutiny.

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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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