What happened to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell?
Last month, McDonnell’s vice presidential fortunes were soaring. He welcomed both Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann to Virginia for a campaign event. The media was atwitter with speculation over his chances. The Romney campaign started deploying him as a political surrogate. Everything that could have gone right went right for him. Lawrence O’Donnell even attacked him.
When stars fall in politics, they always do so abruptly, with a whimper. On May 29, McDonnell announced on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” that he wasn’t even being vetted by Romney’s campaign. Today you’re more likely to hear about little-known Sen. Rob Portman as veep material than McDonnell.
The most likely culprit? Vaginal probes, of course. Meaning Virginia’s proposed law that would have required women to have a vaginal ultrasound examination before having an abortion. Democrats rallied against the law and barraged it with demagogic attacks. Virginia became Normandy Beach in their fraudulent “War on Women.” McDonnell initially supported the law, then withdrew his support at the last second. Regardless, the Romney campaign would have calculated that the law is a liability. Nobody likes hearing the words “vaginal probe” on the campaign trail.
Then there was McDonnell’s 2010 proclamation of “Confederate History Month” which made no mention of slavery. He later apologized for the omission, but the stigma stuck.
Missteps aside, if the Romney campaign really isn’t considering McDonnell for the veep slot, it’s a shame.
McDonnell, a devout Catholic, has a reputation as a rock-ribbed social conservative. He is vocally pro-life, and his college thesis criticized contraception and the disintegration of marriage.
Mitt Romney needs more luster with social conservatives, who hold him suspect over his flip-flops on abortion and "don’t ask, don’t tell." The centerpiece of the 2012 election will be the president’s economic failures. But social issues have a habit of popping up when they’re least expected. During the primary, Romney kept getting shellacked in states with high populations of evangelicals. The 2004 election, dominated by questions over the war in Iraq and John Kerry’s Vietnam record, wound up hinging on moral issues.
Democrats are nailing down a key part of their base by shrieking about a War on Women. Republicans should respond in kind. Bringing Bob McDonnell to the ticket would show that Mitt Romney takes social concerns seriously and give evangelicals greater impetus to vote this November.
Economically, McDonnell also has plenty to offer. He cut billions from the state budget, helping to close both a $1.8 billion deficit in 2010 and further projected deficits of $4.2 billion. (Some of these savings came from President Obama’s stimulus package, as McDonnell himself admitted.) He worked to expand offshore drilling in Virginia. His policies wooed new businesses into the southern part of the state, including ICF International and EIT. The fiscal conservatism paid off. Virginia has the lowest unemployment rate in the Southeast and is ranked by CNBC as the best state in American to do business.
He made privatization of Virginia’s liquor stores one of his top priorities, though the state legislature doesn’t look like it will back him up on this one.
He’s been a check on Washington, D.C.’s spectacularly incompetent Metro transportation system, which runs into the Virginia suburbs. He worked to defeat an absurdly union-friendly contract for Metro’s Big Dig-esque Silver Line project. And instead of tossing gobs of money at public transportation, he’s focused instead on expanding road construction and easing gridlock.
None of this is to say McDonnell is a panacea. Conservatives will point to his caving on a voter ID requirement and his installation of a toll booth on the Virginia-North Carolina border, among other problems.
But we’re electing a vice president, not a spiritual leader. And given Mitt Romney’s pitfalls and the nature of the veep job, McDonnell fits the part nicely.
Romney’s biggest weakness is his persona as a wealthy, out-of-touch, Sherman McCoy-style businessman from Bostonian parlors. McDonnell brings a military record and a southern sensibility to the ticket. To sound like a Washington political consultant for a second, he looks presidential.
Romney’s second biggest weakness is his inability to connect with voters. This presents a conundrum for Romney’s team. They need someone who can jazz up the race. But they also can’t have the veep overshadowing their main attraction, as Chris Christie surely would. (As Molly Ball wondered, “Is Anyone Boring Enough to Be Mitt Romney’s Running Mate?” We should also ask whether anyone is too boring to be Romney’s running mate, e.g., Rob Portman.) McDonnell isn’t terribly exciting, but he has a one-on-one social ease that Romney lacks.
Romney’s third biggest weakness is a single number: 47. Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in terms of job creation during Romney’s time as governor, a fact the Obama campaign is already printing on banners and flying behind airplanes over beaches. Virginia is creating jobs quickly under Bob McDonnell and lets Romney tout a modern example of successful conservative governance. It forces Democrats to confront the success of spending cuts at the local level.
Hanging gloomily over all this is the fact that Virginia is now a swing state – come November, maybe the swing state. McDonnell’s approval ratings have fallen recently and it’s still not clear whether he would help Romney in the Old Dominion. But he is still one of the most popular governors in the country and a majority of Virginians approve of his job performance.
The vice presidency is a tricky job. It requires executive experience and energy on the campaign trail. But it also demands the patience to deal with being secondary to the president. It’s easy to see Bob McDonnell fitting neatly into that hole. Given his unique challenges, Romney should reconsider his decision to cross McDonnell’s name off the list.