Back in 2006, during the height of that year’s election campaign, a Virginia Republican observed that he found the Washington Post’s coverage of local politics much more infuriating than its coverage of national politics. He suspected that the average reporter or editor on the Post’s political beat — either living in the northern Virginia suburbs, or having many friends who did — could live with the idea of the country being represented by George W. Bush, but seethed with disbelief at the thought of being represented by a Republican Sen. George Allen.
Republicans could grouse about the frequency with which the Post went after Allen, mentioning the “macaca” incident — in which Allen used that word to refer to a Webb campaign volunteer, S. R. Sidarth, who is of Indian ancestry – 156 times during the course of the campaign. But all in all, Allen mishandled a racially sensitive controversy in a state with rapidly changing demographics. His challenger, Jim Webb, offered a unique biography for a Democrat. It was a lousy year for the GOP nationwide, and Webb won in a squeaker, 49.6 percent to 48.2 percent.
These are not the circumstances this year. In 2006, the country was rapidly wearying of George W. Bush; the country is now increasingly wary of the agenda of President Obama. The Democratic nominee for governor, Creigh Deeds, is no Jim Webb. He can tout no valiant wartime service, no aisle-crossing work in a Republican administration, and only an unremarkable tenure in the state legislature, marked mostly by a curious ideological flexibility that correlated with his immediate political ambitions.
And Bob McDonnell is no George Allen. While social conservatives have little gripe with McDonnell, his campaign has focused on bread-and-butter issues while campaigning in a deep economic recession: creating jobs, turning Virginia into an energy-producing state, finally tackling northern Virginia’s abysmal traffic problems, emphasizing affordability and employability for graduates of state universities, cracking down on gangs, and auditing all state agencies for performance. Until this week, there hadn’t been a lot of low-hanging fruit for McDonnell’s critics, and it all added up to a lead of 15 percent for McDonnell in early August polls.
But there is now an all-hands-on-deck effort to turn McDonnell’s master’s thesis into a second “macaca” moment. After McDonnell made a reference to discussing welfare reform in his thesis, Post reporters went to Regent University to examine it. The result was a front-page story in the Sunday edition: “At age 34, two years before his first election and two decades before he would run for governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell submitted a master’s thesis to the evangelical school he was attending in Virginia Beach in which he described working women and feminists as ‘detrimental’ to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over ‘cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators.’ He described as ‘illogical’ a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.”
Controversial stances in the past inevitably trigger feeding frenzies, and the McDonnell campaign knew it was going to have to take its lumps. On Monday, McDonnell discussed his thesis for 90 minutes or so on a conference call; the state party speculated that it was the longest conference call with reporters in Virginia history. This was sufficient to justify a second A1, above-the-fold story in the Post.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and a campaign has to give the press something else to write about. Tuesday afternoon, McDonnell and the candidate for lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, held an event at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, unveiling new education proposals.
In a sane world, McDonnell’s proposal would garner a healthy amount of attention. Seizing on the fact that only 61 percent of Virginia’s education dollars are spent in the classroom, with the rest going to administration and overhead, McDonnell unveiled a plan to increase that to 65 percent over four years. That would amount to $480 million each year, $12 million for Alexandria, $89 million for schools in Fairfax County. McDonnell said part of the aim was to raise Virginia’s teachers’ salaries to the national average. He emphasized that some of his proposals — performance pay and charter schools — were on the same page as those of President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He noted that 16 school districts in Virginia had already hit that 65 percent benchmark, and 14 of those were among the top 20 schools in the state. “We really believe that more money in the classroom translates to a better chance for high performance by students,” McDonnell said.
An AP reporter asked how Virginia’s percentage of education spending in the classroom compared to that of other states. McDonnell said he didn’t have the specific numbers for other states handy, but that he felt that this would be the right policy regardless of what other states do. The answer is that few states have reached that 65 percent goal; some states have enacted the requirement, but (surprise!) teachers’ unions oppose it and there is some dispute as to how policymakers define “in the classroom.”
But outside the school, the press had only one topic of interest: the thesis. The first question to McDonnell, from the Washington, D.C., NBC affiliate, was what parts of the thesis he no longer agreed with — a topic he had discussed for an hour and a half the previous day. One reporter asked how Lindsey Graham could say “words matter” when evaluating the record of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Another asked why McDonnell’s views on women in the workplace weren’t settled by the time he was 34. Beyond the one question inside, there were no questions on the education plan.
McDonnell had some pretty good answers, noting that when he and Deeds were in the state legislature, they voted the same way 98 percent of the time, and asking which votes Deeds thinks were taking Virginia backwards. He noted that 90 percent of his bills passed, most often with bipartisan majorities. Referring to Deeds’s ads, which heavily emphasize George W. Bush and Mark Warner, “He’s talking about former presidents and former governors and a 20-year-old thesis. I’m talking about what’s best for the future of Virginia.”
As summer wore on, Deeds’s victory in the Democratic primary began to look like a reflection of the weakness of his rivals, former state legislator Brian Moran and former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe. In recent weeks, Deeds found himself signing on to initiatives McDonnell proposed: a rural-job-creation initiative, reopening closed rest stops, privatizing state-run liquor stores, a bill to provide restitution to a black man who spent 22 years in prison for a crime he was later cleared of by DNA tests. Deeds’s first theme was the bland “This Is Deeds Country,” emphasizing his rural roots. But now, with the media in full overdrive dissecting McDonnell’s thesis, Creigh Deeds finally has something to talk about.
Will it work? A poll out Tuesday showed the race tightening a bit, with McDonnell’s lead at 7 percent; only one day of the polling occurred after the Post story. Certainly, the Democrats think they have a workable playbook and there’s not much harm in playing this to the hilt; it’s not as if any other strategy were getting any traction.
Creigh Deeds has no transportation plan, and the skimpiest of education plans; in the face of a $1.5 trillion revenue shortfall, has said he’s willing to increase taxes. Even where his proposals exceed a notecard, the details are sketchy: His “jobs plan” includes “help[ing] unemployed workers purchase emergency health insurance” — which, regardless of its merits, doesn’t actually create jobs. He’s been in the state legislature for 18 years, but few Virginians could name anything he’s done in that time. He talks a great deal about where he’s from, but not what he will do. Deeds’s interest in the governor’s mansion seems driven more by a desire to be someone than by a desire to accomplish something.
But he’s never written a controversial thesis, and if the Washington Post has its way, that will be the decisive issue.
–Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.