The Agenda

Van Jones and Bob McDonnell

A short while ago, I wrote a post defending Bob McDonnell. The truth is that I didn’t think, and I don’t think, McDonnell needs much defending. He’s been lambasted in the press for expressing views in a 1989 master’s thesis that are shared by many conservatives. The most controversial views involved the role of women in the workforce, and more particularly the role of the mothers of young children. Ironically, McDonnell embraced a position taken my many left-of-center critics of welfare reform, namely that children need a mother in the home. In the years since, however, McDonnell has embraced the cause of working women; apart from his employed wife, he is the father of professionally accomplished daughters, one of whom is serving in the military.

More recently, Van Jones, the recently resigned White House green jobs advisor, has been attacked for past statements regarding his radical chic affiliations. David Weigel has described the controversy in detail. Apart from Jones’s baffling decision to sign not one but two petitions sponsored by so-called 9/11 Truthers, one gets the impression that Jones is a fairly conventional urban left-liberal who has moved steadily to the political center. Is this shift a sham designed to increase his power and influence or is it a genuine recognition of the limits and indeed the ultimate uselessness of radical chic? I have to assume it’s both, just as McDonnell has recognized the limits of emphasizing his social conservatism and he’s had a genuine change of heart on the role of mothers in public life.

To be sure, McDonnell and Jones are very different; McDonnell’s views are comfortably in the mainstream while Jones’s early 1990s embrace of black nationalism and, remarkably, communism, are not. It’s worth thinking through the psychology that might be at work — to do his work well, Van Jones has to have credibility not only with business leaders and centrist technocrats; rather, he has to seem authentic to inner-city residents who feel angry and dispossessed. His radical pose was a part of this. So in a sense, Jones is a tragic figure. This isn’t to say that Glenn Beck shouldn’t have gone after him: given his past statements, Jones would have done the White House advisor a favor by staying outside the administration. But Jones’s basic contribution has been valuable: America’s poorest inner-cities are plagued by a culture of worklessness, a problem that is in some sense more destructive and more pervasive than homelessness. Encouraging job growth in these communities will reduce welfare dependency, the central goal of conservative welfare reform efforts. And Jones saw various clean-energy initiatives as a way to do this. There’s a reason this idea has been embraced across the political spectrum: it’s not a bad idea.

In the inaugural issue of National Affairs, Johns Hopkins political scientist offers a fascinating history lesson on the evolution of “compassionate conservatism.” Part of his discussion involves the GOP’s outreach to African Americans from Nixon on.

Especially in competitive non-Southern states, spotting the Democrats the entire black (and, increasingly, Hispanic) vote made it extremely difficult for Republicans to achieve long-term partisan realignment. A segregated party could not be a majority party, something that even Nixon recognized. So while he was openly appealing for Southern segregationist support in his judicial nominations, Nixon experimented with support for “black capitalism” through affirmative action in government contracting and small-business programs. He also sought to attract Hispanic voters by adding a new category to the 1970 census and supporting bilingual education. These measures were unsuccessful in both policy and electoral terms, but they represented an instinct that Republicans would flirt with on and off for the next quarter-century, culminating with the Bush campaign in 2000.

While I oppose vast clean-energy industrial policies, low-cost strategies for dealing with climate change will have to involve revamping urban infrastructure. The right has good reason to take this to heart.

As for the political futures of Van Jones and Bob McDonnell, the Virginia Republican is still polling fairly well, though it remains to be seen if national Democratic muscle will really get behind Deeds in the months to come; Jones will likely return to Oakland, where he’ll find a city in rapid decline. Jones’s past radicalism may well bar him from a place on the national stage, but he is a smart and savvy activist who is far more pro-market than your average member of the Oakland left; one wonders if he’d ever consider running for mayor or for Congress, where he’d represent a distinct improvement over Congresswoman Barbara Lee.  

A final note: in 1976, Jimmy Carter said different things to different audiences so often that he gained a reputation among his Democratic rivals as spectacularly deceitful even for a politician. In front of liberal audiences, he represented himself as a champion of civil rights; among working-class white voters, Carter defended the racial purity of white neighborhoods. Left-of-center critics often claim that Ronald Reagan relied on segregationist appeals; they tend to let Carter off the hook. Carter’s double-game, just barely possible in the 1970s, is now completely impossible. If you want to impress readers of the East Bay Express with your radical past, Glenn Beck will eventually find out. The end result is that young people seeking a career in public life will have to be more cautious than ever. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

I wrote a short piece on Jones and McDonnell for The Daily Beast, and I’m afraid they gave it the headline “Leave Van Jones Alone.” Given that I don’t think Jones or McDonnell should be “left alone” — they should face the same scrutiny that all public officials face — I’d much prefer a different title.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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