Politics & Policy

Bob McDonnell, Conservative Pragmatist

This Virginia Republican offers a conservatism that can win again.

The p-word, pragmatist, has had a malodor in conservative circles since the Reagan years. Back then, it was a term of abuse that conservatives used against their moderate adversaries in intra-administration battles.

It’s time to rehabilitate the word, and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell shows why. McDonnell is a conservative pragmatist whose campaign is winning independents — by 2–1 in a new Public Policy Polling survey — with an emphasis on basic quality-of-life issues. He relentlessly talks of three things: jobs, transportation, and education.

Both words in the label “conservative pragmatist” are important. McDonnell is indisputably a conservative — a Reaganite whose social-conservative credentials are impeccable (just ask the Washington Post, which has been crusading against him for these views, expressed pungently in his long-ago graduate-school thesis). But he’s also a wonk who has focused on crafting policy to address the everyday concerns of Virginians.

“Bob’s approach,” says an adviser, “is to take conservative principles and apply them to practical problem-solving. His target audience is that average swing voter, who wants to know that your values are close to his and that you’re going to solve problems.”

The McDonnell campaign is consciously modeled after the successful George Allen campaign of 1993, which achieved the same synthesis of basic conservative values and a raft of innovative policy. Although now the issue mix is different. When Allen ran, welfare and crime were top-shelf domestic issues. They’ve faded since, and — besides jobs — McDonnell is concentrating on transportation and education instead.

This tack seems so commonsensical it should be unremarkable. Yet, there’s been an intense intra-conservative debate since the election last year between the traditionalists on the one hand and the reformers on the other. To over-simplify, the traditionalists think the mere assertion of conservative principles is enough to win elections (and if not, too bad). And the reformers think contemporary conservatism is so dated that it at the very least needs new policy and perhaps needs to be torn down entirely and built again.

McDonnell’s campaign demonstrates just how arid much of this debate is. McDonnell’s traditionalism informs his policy, and his policy invigorates his traditionalism and makes it appealing to the vast numbers of voters who aren’t driven by ideology or abstractions.

Of course, larger factors are at work. McDonnell is a sterling candidate, and his Democratic opponent, Creigh Deeds, is an execrable one. Larry Sabato calls McDonnell a “suburban communicator” — one who possesses a smoothness and sophistication that suburban voters value — and says his campaign has basically been “perfect.”

Also, Obama and his overreach have changed the entire atmospherics of Virginia politics. If it were 2005 again, Deeds might well win. It’s not. Virginia has a tradition of electing governors from the opposite party of sitting presidents, going back to 1977. But Obama has super-charged this effect, giving limited-government conservatism a resonance it hasn’t had since President Clinton won the government-shutdown fights in 1995–1996.

McDonnell talks of everything in terms of jobs. He has a mind-numbing array of proposals to ease the way for small business and rural economic development. He sells both his transportation and education plans as economic initiatives. On transportation, he’d expand public-private partnerships and put Virginia on the cutting edge with tolling and other pricing mechanisms (skeptics, the Washington Post foremost among them, say nothing significant can be done without higher taxes). On education, he has pledged to award an additional 100,000 college degrees over the next four years, particularly in science and math.

McDonnell has energized his base while not speaking exclusively to it. “He’s emphasized the imagery and language of inclusion, bringing people together to solve problems, instead of an in-your-face tone of confrontation,” says the adviser. One of the campaign’s favorite talking points is that 90 percent of the legislation McDonnell proposed as attorney general passed the assembly with strong bipartisan support.

The controversy over McDonnell’s thesis, with its inflammatory language about working women, risked destroying all this effort. But McDonnell handled it deftly. He spent 90 minutes on a conference call with reporters exhausting every possible question about the thesis. Then, the next day, when he was asked about it again at an education event, he said he’d answered all the thesis questions the day before and wanted to keep the campaign on the here and now.

Although the controversy initially tightened up the race, it probably hurt Deeds in the long run. He seemed the candidate caught in the past, talking about hot-button cultural issues. The flap accented his weakness, which is a lack of clear and detailed policy proposals. In contrast, McDonnell’s policy focus ended up serving as a kind of character witness. It spoke to his concern about what really matters to voters and made him less threatening (support from women who worked in high-level positions in his AG office, and from his daughter who served in Iraq, helped too).

If McDonnell wins — and Sabato smells “a landslide” — he’ll be faced with the difficulties of actually governing a state in the midst of a budget-busting recession. It will inevitably be much harder to pass his plans and make them work than it was to campaign on them. But McDonnell, together with Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who has championed a similar mix of conservative principle and innovative policy, will be the nucleus of what the GOP desperately needs: a cadre of reformist governors, like John Engler and Tommy Thompson in the 1990s, who can refresh the party’s policy arsenal and political appeal.

Maybe the word “pragmatist” — too redolent of the weather vane and of surrender — can never quite be rehabilitated for conservatives. If so, forget the label and just think of what McDonnell is doing in Virginia as conservatism that can win again.

– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.

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