A Reminder from Bob McDonnell: Never Make Long Bets on Future Presidents

The spectacular indictment of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell finally, at last, ends speculation that the governor might somehow be a Republican contender in 2016. 

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The spectacular indictment of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell finally, at last, ends speculation that the governor might somehow be a Republican presidential contender in 2016. Proving, for the 200 millionth time, that long bets on presidential candidates rarely pay off.

The thing about McDonnell is that he looks like a president. It's a cliche of a cliche, saying that he looks like a guy who walked into a casting call for some summer disaster flick and got the part of sober, calming President Jamison. But he does. The well-coiffed-and-sporadically-gray hair, the grin, the light-colored eyes, the drawl. He's like Rick Perry, but slicker and arguably more moderate. Watch him walk out onto the stage of the Republican convention in 2012, telling the story of his grandfather's path through Ellis Island. Someone tuning in halfway through would assume McDonnell was the candidate.

He isn't and never will be. But as recently as last October, after nearly all of the revelations that were fleshed by the grand jury had been revealed, there was marveling at his political resilience. "Bob McDonnell the survivor," the headline read. "A wave of fresh polling this fall has shown that the governor’s job approval rating remains solid or even strong," wrote Politico's Alex Burns in October. "Despite a summer’s worth of painful scrutiny and scolding from editorial boards and political leaders up and down the state, every recent survey from Virginia shows McDonnell’s approval rating in positive territory."

It's hard to shake that Hollywood dream! In 2012, McDonnell was on Mitt Romney's extended short list, according to some reports — including one from McDonnell, who says he got a courtesy call from the campaign when Rep. Paul Ryan got the nod.

It was good positioning for 2016, it seemed. In February of 2013, a little over a month after Obama was inaugurated for the second time, CNN's Reihan Salam asked, "Will Bob McDonnell be a presidential contender?" Salam walks through the reasoning that might contribute to a McDonnell surge three years later: his conservative bona fides, his ability to wring concessions from a hostile legislature, his outreach to minority voters. "It's a long shot," Salam said, "but it might be worth a shot all the same."

A few months later, it became obvious that the answer to Salam's question was no. A Public Policy Polling survey, taken shortly after the donations scandal emerged, showed McDonnell trailing in the state to three other Republicans. Fifty-seven percent of respondents didn't think he should run in 2016 at all. And then the waterfall began: allegations of trips paid for by a donor, shopping sprees, and the gift of a silver Rolex. (Last July, The Wire made a fun quiz with all of the alleged gifts. Go play!)

It's impossible not to see parallels with the governor in the nearby state of New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie's prospects are not nearly as bleak as McDonnell's, but, then, the revelations of possible wrong-doing are not as thoroughly marinated as the Virginia governor's. It was possible to imagine a 2016 campaign that saw Christie and McDonnell fighting it out in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast for convention delegates. It is no longer possible to do so.

On Wednesday, Politico's Burns, writing with John Harris, seemed at first blush almost sad that the Golden Boy had been tarnished. Under the headline "The tragedy of Bob McDonnell," they write:

The people who have followed McDonnell most closely — working for him, donating to him, covering him and voting for him — have found the last year a bleakly disorienting experience, as McDonnell’s layers of legal deniability have been progressively stripped away. Allies who initially dismissed the federal investigation as a fishing expedition have come to terms with a much tougher reality. Friends who once believed that the problem was [McDonnell's wife] now don’t know quite what to believe.

McDonnell's political career is now "in mortal danger," Burns and Harris write, using a sort of melodramatic understatement that befits the Hollywood plotline. McDonnell's political career is like Monty Python's parrot: defunct, no longer, standing upright only when nailed to its perch.

After all, the storyline wasn't out of a movie. Handsome rising star allegedly falls victim to his own avarice and sees everything crumble. That, as Politico's headline suggests, is a Greek story, not one from Hollywood.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.