Bob McDonnell’s strategy for responding to Thesis-caca, like his overall campaign, is steeped in deception and dishonesty. It has also been effective.
Quite honestly, I have to admit it is somewhat frustrating, but fascinating, to watch this all unfold. While I can see and describe what McDonnell is doing, and I can divine the mechanics that allow it to operate, I can’t for the life of me figure out how he is getting away with it with respect to voters, although if a recent poll is to be believed, getting away with it he is.
Well, I can figure it out, sort of. Bob McDonnell is unusually gifted and skillful at deception. And I mean that as a compliment.
McDonnell’s goal is to maintain the moderate image he has built for himself on social issues like choice, homosexuality, discrimination, etc., because otherwise he cannot win the election. The blog Coarse Cracked Corn deftly explains how McDonnell built this image:
Earlier this summer Bob McDonnell spent several hundred thousand dollars on TV ads designed to reshape his image, to rebrand himself, to mislead Virginia voters. In those slick commercials, McDonnell was portrayed as a moderate consensus builder, open to all ideas, and willing to work across party lines. Using shades of blue, Taliban Bob seemingly attempted to paint himself almost as a Democrat. In June, with the Democrats focused on their primary, McDonnell was able to use the power of TV to fabricate an image of him as a moderate that gave him a midsummer bump in some polls.
The disclosure of the thesis, and the specificity with which McDonnell described his extreme views on social issues and his belief in a theocratic government to foist his conservative views on everyone, has obviously complicated this strategy tremendously. At the same time that McDonnell must maintain his moderate image, generally, he must also signal his Conservative base that Bob McDonnell believes deeply in each and everyone of the draconian principles that he laid down in the thesis.
Standard dog whistle politics don’t cut it here – too many people are paying attention. To accomplish this requires sophistry of the first order supported by brazen dishonesty uncomplicated by shame, morality or ethics.
First, there is McDonnell’s position that the very discussion of these social issues is either illegitimate or irrelevant in the campaign because they spring from a twenty-year old thesis. Of course, these issues are both legitimate and relevant, and they spring not from the thesis, but from a desire to know who Bob McDonnell is today. In truth, McDonnell discusses social issues all the time -- when he wants to -- but defaulting to this argument and sticking to his guns permits McDonnell to refuse to take questions at will, or dance around answering an uncomfortable one.
That basic position, which the MSM has yet to crack, has afforded McDonnell control over the coverage, and left him free to rhetorically negotiate the seemingly inconsistent goals before him -- establishing at the same time that he is a both a moderate and a batshit crazy Conservative. (This, BTW, is not a knock on the MSM. Amy Gardner and the Washington Post deserve praise for their work.)
How does McDonnell use this freedom? Cleverly. He doesn't quite hit you over the head with dishonesty, but it is there nonetheless, and it isn't buried too deep. If it wasn't close to the surface, it would not have its desired effect.
Early on, for example, McDonnell absurdly and implausibly denied his own seriousness of purpose and hard work in producing the 93-page thesis by derisively calling it a “term paper” and an “academic exercise,” and something he hadn’t read in twenty years. Of course, this was false, but left unchallenged McDonnell managed at the same time to deny the document contains any serious content (maintaining moderate cred), without disavowing any of its substance (and risking backlash from his base).
Or consider how McDonnell has addressed the hot button issue of his denigration of women who choose to work outside the home. McDonnell argues his opinion has changed, but he doesn’t state how or what prompted the change. Rather, he “proves” his opinion has changed by a non sequitor -- pointing to the fact that his wife worked outside the home and the fact that he has three daughters, one of whom served in Iraq.
Again, the argument allows McDonnell to create a moderate impression (my wife works outside the home) without actually addressing the substance of the issue, namely, whether government ought to promote policies to make it more difficult for women to work outside the home. Those are not exclusive concepts -- Bob McDonnell would not be the first nor the last politician to think one policy is good for his constituents while another works better for him and his.
In fact, the available evidence shows that McDonnell has not changed his opinions on women in the workplace at all, such as his vote against requiring equal pay for women for equal work.
And while the media has challenged McDonnell on this one, he has defaulted to his refusal to discuss it (except when he wants to) because the issue of a twenty-year old thesis is illegitimate and irrelevant to a campaign today. Then he hilariously took offence at anyone even suggesting he might think it is inappropriate for women to work outside the home.
That's the kind of touch only a true maestro could pull off.
Now consider McDonnell’s appearance on Sean Hannity’s radio show Thursday, where he was speaking exclusively to his base. In that appearance, he vigorously defended that very same thesis that only days before he dismissed as a mere term paper and academic exercise, and asserted he had not thought about in twenty years and, anyway, contained opinions from which he has evolved:
Well, the thesis was about something that I think was very important and that is that marriage and family are the bedrock of our society then and that’s been true in quotes from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama to Governor Kaine to Bob McDonnell. People believe that--what I was doing in the late eighties was looking at sort of what happened after the Great Society vision of President Johnson and the AFDC program and some other things that had undermined the traditional family to say what are these government policies that are causing the impact on women and children and families and are there some things that we can do better?
While the words seem somewhat benign -- I mean, who is anti-family? Who doesn't want to do "better"? -- in McDonnell's thesis everything derives from his core belief about the "traditional" family as a sacred unit. In other words, Bob McDonnell still strongly believes in his thesis, namely that government should be able to tell you how to live your personal life – who to marry, who to love, how and when to bear children and, ultimately, how and what deity you worship -- as long as those dictates are based on Bob McDonnell’s particular Biblical interpretation.
Again, the deception is clearly there, just below the surface. Not express, but certainly much bolder that the usual winks, nudges and code words of traditional dog whistles.
So far, at least, McDonnell's deception is working, i.e., moderates do not seem to be seeing BSC Bob yet, at least according to some of the data in Friday’s SUSA poll, which has McDonnell ahead 54-42. The poll was taken after Thesis-caca broke.
McDonnell is pulling 42% of the self-described moderate voters in the poll, 15% of the self-described liberals, and 31% of self-described pro-choice voters. At the same time, McDonnell is getting 89% of self-described Conservatives. Similarly, McDonnell is attracting 19% of Democrats and 88% of Republicans, not to mention 13% of Obama voters at the same time he is garnering 90% of McCain voters.
In short, these numbers show McDonnell is attracting considerable support from people diametrically opposed to his positions, without sacrificing any of his base.
His accomplishment is even more impressive when one considers that he has been entirely upfront about the fact that his strategy is based on deception. McDonnell wrote on page 55 of his thesis (h/t Daily Kos):
It is also becoming clear in modern culture that the voting American mainstream is not willing to accept a true pro-family ideologue because as then-Representative Trent Lott (R-MS) observed, "Americans think of themselves as conservatives; they want government reduced. But in their hearts they are liberals, they want all the goodies coming in. Leadership, however, does not require giving voters what they want, for whimsical and capricious government would result. Republican legislators must exercise independent professional judgment as statesman, to make decisions that are objectively right, and proved effective."
As Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos explained:
Got that? "Leadership" means hiding your "true pro-family" ideology from the voters, who don't want it and aren't willing to accept it, but then governing in that fashion once elected. It is the height of cynicism -- openly violating the trust of the voter by pretending to be something you are not, masking your true intentions from an electorate that would never endorse that agenda with their vote.
Markos then asks:
Given McDonnell's open admission of dishonesty, how can any of his "moderate" policy pronouncements be taken seriously?