The Corner

U.S.

Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword

Ralph Northam’s yearbook page from 1984 (Obtained by National Review)

If we limit ourselves exclusively to the original controversy — that is, if we ignore his alternating “I did it”/”I didn’t do it” responses, his embryonic moonwalking, and the possibility that he is now lying, and we look only at the now infamous yearbook photograph — there is a solid case to be made that Ralph Northam should not be forced to resign from his position as Governor of Virginia. The photograph in question is abhorrent. It’s not amusing, it’s not a childhood indiscretion, and it’s not a “distraction.” It’s abhorrent. But it’s also more than three decades old. Had Northam made such a mistake while he was governor, that would, naturally, be disqualifying. But he didn’t. And, let’s be honest, there is no indication whatsoever that he would have. As he exists now, the guy’s not a “racist.” He’s not a “white supremacist.” He’s not a “Klan member.” To force a resignation from a man on the grounds of a mistake he made 34 years ago — long before he entered public service, or even left college — strikes me as downright illiberal. It is said that Northam has “broken the bonds of trust.” But there’s some base-stealing in there, the assumption being that a critical mass of Virginians now believe that the head of their executive branch is an incorrigible racist. Perhaps they do. But if they do, they might ask themselves, “Why?” Are we to assume that our standard now is that if you did something horrible once you cannot be trusted ever again? If it is we will have to reconsider an awful lot more than who is to lead Virginia.

The trouble for Northam, though, is that the above is my view, not the Democratic party’s view, and Northam is a Democrat, not a Charles Cooke. Or, put another way: The rules that would save Northam are those that are coveted by a conservative libertarian guy who loathes mobs, who believes broadly in redemption, and who resents the relentless flattening of categories that social media renders quotidian. They are not the rules by which the contemporary Democratic party lives. They are not the rules cherished by the progressive movement that is at present ascendant within that party. And, judging by his disgraceful behavior during the 2017 gubernatorial election, they are not the rules by which Ralph Northam plays, either. Surely, that has to matter? Again: I think that there is a creditable case against Northam’s resigning — or, at least, I think that there was before he muddied the waters. Whatever his past mistakes, he is quite obviously not a white supremacist, and, whatever the hell he was doing in college, he quite obviously is not that man today. But, again: I am not of his party. I haven’t taken its money, accepted its votes, or sought to inflict its Catechism. If our politics are to work, there have to be some consequences to signing on to an agenda, to a worldview, to an outlook, to a set of tactics, as Northam has — and those consequences can’t just be reserved for the other party.

Oddly enough, this same problem is also going to haunt Lieutenant Governor Fairfax — Northam’s successor should he resign — who, astonishingly, has now been accused of sexual assault. By the Charles Cooke standard, Fairfax is innocent until proven guilty, both in court and otherwise, and should be steadfastly treated as such in the media and elsewere. By the standard that the Democratic party laid out during the Kavanaugh saga, however, Fairfax is finished. Sure, this approach holds, Fairfax says he didn’t do it, but that is exactly what he would say, isn’t it? As a matter of course, this approach holds, we must #BelieveAllWomen, who never invent accusations of sexual assault or mischaracterize what happened long ago. Again: Under the Charles Cooke standard, Fairfax may well be innocent, and that matters enormously because there is the potential here for his life and name to be ruined for posterity by a lie. But under the Democratic party’s standard, we should immediately move on. After all, it shouldn’t be “too much to ask” to find someone who has not been accused of sexual assault. Like Northam, Fairfax is a Democrat. Why, exactly, should he be immune from the rules laid out by the movement with which he has allied himself, and to which he owes his present position?

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