The Corner

Politics & Policy

Northam’s Vanity Project

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accompanied by his wife Pamela Northam, announces he will not resign during a news conference in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2019. (Jay Paul/Reuters)

Let’s assume Ralph Northam’s not a racist. It’s a pretty easy assumption for me because I think it’s probably true, even if I also think his yearbook photo was horrendous and I don’t believe he wasn’t in it. Let’s also assume it would be a good thing for Virginia to have a new “conversation” about race. This is a somewhat more difficult assumption for me because it’s so obviously a self-serving idea when offered by Northam. As Jim Geraghty notes, Northam wants to make his personal sin Virginia’s sin. Jim quotes Northam’s Washington Post interview:

It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do. There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity,” he said. “There are ongoing inequities to access to things like education, health care, mortgages, capital, entre­pre­neur­ship. And so this has been a real, I think, an awakening for Virginia. It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we’re ready to learn from our mistakes.

Then Jim asks, “What’s this ‘we’ stuff?”

I’m with Jim on this. Still, let’s assume that Virginia needs to dialogue about race and that for some — pretty much unfathomable-to-me — reason, Northam is just the man to lead it.

There’s still a problem here. Northam wasn’t elected to hold a statewide conversation about race or to bend public policy toward some group-atonement Virginians. Again, let’s stipulate that those things are good and necessary. That’s still not what voters asked for.

It would be one thing if there was some kind of horrific event a la the Charleston shooting or even a fight over the Confederate flag, that required him to show political leadership over events outside his control. Northam is literally bending his administration to a new agenda — sensitivity training for everyone! — out of a desire to prove something about him.

Jonathan Last called it earliest and best when he noted that the incentive structure of our politics made it unlikely that Northam would resign: It simply isn’t in his personal interest.

If Northam had run for governor — and won — promising to use his shame over wearing blackface or a Klan hood as motivation for “healing” Virginia, that would have been fine. But even if Northam isn’t in that photo, even if this is all a terribly unfair mistake, it doesn’t change the fact that the powers of the governorship aren’t his to use for a personal vanity project. He’s not a Duke or Earl in need of clearing his family’s good name. He’s a public servant charged with doing the job he was elected to do.

It seems to me that this is a plausible reason for impeachment, particularly if he takes it too far. Imagine if he decided to use his office to prove he’s a terrific moonwalker or to teach kids it’s okay to wear blackface. Everyone would understand that he was abusing the office for his own ego-driven weirdness. Well, even if the underlying objectives are noble or needed, he’s not doing them for any other reason than his own personal need to rehabilitate himself. That’s not what he ran on and it’s not the job description of Virginia governor.

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