Wednesday, August 5, 2009

How George W. Bush is Bob McDonnell's Role Model

The Deeds campaign issued a presser yesterday in which they refer to Bob McDonnell as “Both Ways Bob.” It is the perfect appellation that captures Mr. McDonnell’s efforts to paint himself as a moderate.

Of greater import for the Commonwealth, however, is how Mr. McDonnell gets away with it. And he is getting away with it.

Yesterday’s presser concerned education, but I have documented other issues in which Mr. McDonnell has successfully cloaked himself in moderate clothing, to wit:

* Mr. McDonnell introduced more than 35 bills while in the General Assembly seeking to restrict, in one way or another, a woman’s right to choose. Now that he is running for governor, he claims all he wants is to seek common ground on the issue of choice. He doesn’t. He is ideologically, philosophically and religiously committed to ending a woman’s right to choose completely.

* As a legislator, Mr. McDonnell tried to block the reappointment of a Virginia Beach judge because she was allegedly gay. As Attorney General, he issued several opinions of questionable legal reasoning all aimed at eliminating or minimizing policies enacted to end discrimination against gay people. Now, he promises he won’t discriminate. Well, okay, we can take him at his word, but first he ought to explain why he apparently condoned discrimination in the past.

* As a legislator, Mr. McDonnell voted to cut funding for the Governor’s Opportunity Fund. Now that he is running for Governor, he says he wants to increase that funding.

* As a gubernatorial candidate, Mr. McDonnell led the fight to urge the General Assembly to refuse $125 million in federal aid to help unemployed workers, mainly to poke a thumb in the eye of President Obama. Now, Mr. McDonnell asserts in his economic plan that he will establish an Economic Stimulus Foundation to identify and secure Federal stimulus funds.

To be fair, I don't think Mr. McDonnell is a liar at heart. Actually, he seems like a decent enough fellow, even if I think some of his ideas are wrongheaded, and that sometimes his dogmatism, especially in areas of social issues, gets the better of his common sense. But on the whole, I am certain that if Mr. McDonnell could win this election by telling the truth about where he stands on issues and squaring it with he record, he not only would, he would prefer to do so.

But Mr. McDonnell knows if he did that, he would lose this election to a true moderate like Creigh.

Politicians at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, on both the left and right, have always had to play what my friend Lowell Feld calls “dog whistle politics.” The bases on which these extremists rely are essential to them, and might occasionally even be enough to win an election at a local level. But on a statewide, or obviously national, level, the trick is to moderate your positions enough to sound palatable to moderates, while still offering sufficient assurances, to your base that you have not really changed your spots typically in the form of code words or symbols that mean one thing to your base, but sound benign enough in everyday usage so as not to frighten moderates.

Mr. McDonnell plays a variation of that. While there is a dog whistle element to Mr. McDonnell’s campaign, he is doing more of a two-step that simply refuses to acknowledge his record.

Pulling this off does not require skill or guile. Indeed, truly skilled politicians, like President Bill Clinton, generally don’t need or practice dog whistle or two-step politics all that much. Rather, they are genuine coalition-builders who rely on their uncanny ability to understand the needs of people from different walks of life, and articulate to them why they will genuinely benefit from a particular policy. That’s not to say they never do it; only that it is not their usual M.O.

Paradoxically, the very skill and effectiveness of leaders like Mr. Clinton in honestly, forthrightly and thoughtfully communicating with citizens leads both his political opponents, and many in the mainstream media, to depict them as slick and untrustworthy. Their inability to detect the BS (because there is none) becomes proof that it is merely being more effectively hidden.

Successfully pulling off dog whistle and two-step politics like Mr. McDonnell has done, however, mainly requires a powerful sense of shamelessness. It requires an ability to stand up day after day and spew forth statements you know are bull, to proudly insist that, no matter what, black is white, up is down and right is left. Trying this would reduce most people to tears, or at least drive them to the solace and safety of their bedrooms to hide under the blankets. I imagine it has been especially tricky this cycle for Conservatives who have had to deal with the increasing influence of Teabaggers and Birthers within the GOP base.

A simple, yet brazen refusal to simply acknowledge obvious truths leaves most reporters scratching their heads. Reporters, of course (or, well, most of them), see and fully understand what the politician is doing, but they are powerless to stop it. First, if reporters tried to debunk all the BS coming from the practitioners of this brand of politics, they would have no time left for doing their assigned jobs of covering events. Batting back even obvious lies is a time-consuming process, sometimes requiring expertise, frequently requiring copious research, explanation and exposition.

What’s worse, even if a reporter does all that, editors often aren’t interested in the stories. The dirty truth is that most reporters and editors have disdain for their readers. They believe that their readership have short attention spans and are not interested, for the most part, in long-form journalism that focuses on issues. That is why our political coverage tends to focus on the simple and trivial. Expose the fact that Bob McDonnell’s economic plan has no substance? No way. Gus Deeds drank a beer at a frat party? Ding, Ding, Ding!

There is a reason one of the most aphoristic of all newsroom aphorisms is, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

McDonnell is good at this kind of politics, but the best I have ever seen at it was George W. Bush. He was completely unperturbed and unaffected by facts and reality (an aide once famously said in the wake of 9/11, “We create our own reality”), and for five years the media could not lay a glove on him (and yes, some fell down on the job, but many didn’t).

As a businessman, for example, Mr. Bush failed at virtually everything he tried. That he came out of these failures a financial success was due to rescues by his father. When you’re President, however, there is no safety net, and that the George W. Bush Administration would be marked by incompetence and end in economic disaster should have surprised no one who understood his record.

The event fulcrum for Mr. Bush was Katrina. When the pictures from New Orleans were juxtaposed real time with Mr. Bush’s claims that all was under control, the nation seemed to finally snap out of its daze. By then, however, it was too late to stem the tide; we were in two wars, our international reputation was in tatters, and the irreversible conditions that would inexorably drive our economy literally to the brink of ruin were already in place.

Amazingly, the same scenario seems to be playing out in Virginia. While Mr. McDonnell may present himself as a moderate, he is still an extreme Conservative. Like George W. Bush did to our country, if Mr. McDonnell is elected governor, he will leave the Commonwealth a much different, and in my view significantly less appealing, place than it is today. He is just not telling us that.

Generally, after eight years of Democratic leadership focused on providing better government service to Virginians (sometimes successfully, sometimes not), if Mr. McDonnell becomes governor, cuts in all areas of government service are in the offing. Look for the middle class to be left, for all intents and purposes, to fend for themselves on health care. Look for less funding for public education at all levels. More tax cuts favoring the wealthy? Probably. And expect further limitations on a woman’s right to choose, perhaps the most severe in the nation. Finally, as other states improve the quality of the lives for all their citizens by removing discrimination against rights of homosexuals to marry, adopt, etc., from their books, Virginia will undoubtedly remain in the dark ages on this particular civil rights issue.

Taken together, the thermadorian reaction envisioned for the Commonwealth by Mr. McDonnell is not the kind of place that will attract the highly skilled and educated work force necessary for 21st Century economic development. I think people will be surprised, but just like with George W. Bush, it is there to clearly see in Mr. McDonnell’s record.

In closing, I ask, is there any fair-minded person who doesn’t wish we had taken a harder look at George Bush’s record before elevating him to the Presidency of the United States. Perhaps he would have won anyway, but at least we would have had our eyes open.

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