The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Resign, Ralph Northam

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

Making the click-through worthwhile: a conveniently timed accusation against Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, moonwalking governor Ralph Northam botches the complicated political task of asking for forgiveness, and evidence that Democrats have some good reasons to freak out about Howard Schultz.

Every Virginia Democrat Who Doesn’t Have a Deep Dark Scandal, Raise Your Hand

You never know what’s going to happen in politics. One day you’re offering a defense of an abortion bill that is completely indistinguishable from infanticide, a few days later someone reminds a reporter of photos of your medical-school yearbook and almost every political figure in the state is demanding your resignation.

This morning brings another unexpected turn in the sudden drama of Virginia governor Ralph Northam:

As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam faces increasing pressure to resign over a racist photograph from his 1984 medical school yearbook, the man who would take his place — Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax — is responding to accusations of his own.

The allegation involves an unsubstantiated claim of sexual assault against Fairfax during the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The claim was posted Sunday night on the same website that first published the racist photo from Gov. Northam’s yearbook.

WUSA9 is refraining from publishing further details of the claim, as key elements have not been able to be verified. Broad outlines of the claim are only being published after Farifax’s office released an official statement now in public view.

Who benefits the most from this accusation against Justin Fairfax surfacing now? Ralph Northam.

It feels like it was only yesterday when one of Northam’s few public defenders, notorious former congressman Jim Moran, was crediting Northam for Fairfax’s career, saying Northam “has promoted the career of his very talented lieutenant governor in every possible way.” In fact, it was yesterday.

Get Out, Ralph Northam

There’s room in our society for a good, honest debate about how much someone should be held accountable for their non-criminal actions more than three decades ago. And if Northam had taken a different approach on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, maybe he wouldn’t look quite so doomed. One of his first comments in his insane press conference went down this road: “In the place and time where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace.” But he quickly shifted to a narrative where he was a victim of circumstance who did nothing worse than attempt to imitate Michael Jackson.

Judging from the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of 1984, blackface, coffee mugs with references to slavery, and other crass and tasteless comments were not rare. We can all picture the sort of genuinely remorseful tone Northam could have given:

The atmosphere at my college years and medical school in the early to mid-80s and the types of things we found funny back then would shock many people in 2019. Even if I was never the worst offender, I laughed along with everyone else, and did nothing to stand up against it. I left those attitudes behind when I began my medical practice and saw the humanity of every patient who walked through my door. It did not take long before I realized my attitudes and behaviors in my years of higher education were racist, derogatory, and obnoxious. Because I belatedly recognized that what I had thought were harmless jokes and pranks were in fact horribly offensive and shameful, I never spoke of my actions during that time.

Would that guarantee Northam could stay in office? Maybe, maybe not. But at least it would involve an element of taking responsibility. As is, Northam is casting himself as a mostly innocent victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy, insisting that he was neither figure in the photo, that he didn’t take the photo, that his initial apology on Friday night about “the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now” was inaccurate, that he only realized he was not in the photo after he “reflected with ‘his family and classmates from the time,” that refusing to resign was the honorable choice because stepping down would “duck my responsibility to reconcile,” that he had no idea how he got the nickname “Coon-man,” that he “dressed up in a — what’s his name, the singer — Michael Jackson,” and that at the dance contest in San Antonio, Northam “had the shoes, I had a glove, and I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks. And the reason I used a very little bit is because, I don’t know if anybody has ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off. But it was a dance contest. I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest because I had learned how to do the moonwalk,” and that he only realized that darkening his face with shoe polish could be considered offensive during a conversation with a campaign aide during the 2017 campaign.

Oh, and that whoever called reporters’ attention to the photo last week “had an agenda.” In his mind, he found the real villain in this story.

Does the widespread denunciation of Northam amount to piling on? In 2017, Northam and his allies spent a lot of time and energy insinuating or outright accusing Ed Gillespie of being racist, sometimes under nonsensical terms such as insisting that any campaign ad that mentioned MS-13 was, ipso facto, xenophobic. Maybe you like Gillespie, maybe you can’t stand him. There are fairer criticisms of him — i.e., he’s pretty much the walking definition of a party loyalist and Washington insider. But there’s nothing about him that can be fairly called racist, and the fact that Northam spent so much time making this accusation, knowing that at the very least, his college nickname and old use of “shoe polish” would represent a major embarrassment and alienate the state’s African-Americans, is galling. (Assuming this is an honest and full accounting of Northam’s actions in his twenties.)

Furthermore, considering the way Northam has handled decisions in his time as governor — from the giving-away-the-store Amazon deal to the factually wrong and horrific comments defending the proposed abortion bill to the way he’s handled this controversy . . . it’s possible that despite his medical degree, Northam just isn’t that bright, or at least that he just doesn’t have good judgment.

Maybe Northam is just lucky, or was until very recently. (Republicans are lucky he didn’t accept their invitation to switch parties back in 2009.) In a low-turnout primary in 2013 (really low; plenty of counties saw less than 1,000 votes), he beat former U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra. (Terry McAuliffe faced no competitors for the gubernatorial nomination, lowering interest in that year’s primary.) His GOP opponent that year, E. W. Jackson, was a political neophyte minister with a history of controversial statements, the state GOP was still dealing with the fallout of Bob McDonnell’s donor gift scandal, and the state party was so divided that the outgoing GOP lieutenant governor appeared to be trying to help the Democrats. After four unremarkable years as lieutenant governor, Northam fought off Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary and then in 2017, the state’s Democrats were white-hot with rage at the first ten months of the Trump administration, sweeping Northam into office in a landslide.

Are Democrats Really Vulnerable to an Independent Candidate in 2020?

A new poll suggests the Democrats’ panic attack over Howard Schultz is somewhat justified:

While only 26 percent of voters who approve of Trump’s job performance as president are very or somewhat likely to consider a third-party candidate, a larger percentage of Trump disapprovers, 41 percent, would consider voting for an independent. By party, nearly a third of Democrats, 31 percent, say they would consider a third-party candidate — greater than the 25 percent of Republicans who would consider voting for someone other than the two major-party nominees.

Keep in mind, “considering” a candidate is a pretty low bar to clear. Getting people to actually vote for that third-party candidate is a much more difficult task.

There’s an easy way for Democrats to mitigate that risk from Schultz, of course, which is to nominate the candidate with the broadest appeal. We can debate who that is, but if you’re worried about a soft-spoken billionaire simultaneously criticizing Trump and a candidate effectively promising socialist revolution . . . then don’t nominate someone who’s effectively promising a socialist revolution.

A Schultz candidacy raises the stakes for Democrats, as they can’t simply run on “Aren’t you tired of this? Vote for the major party candidate that isn’t Trump” in 2020. In a three-way race up against an incumbent president and a socially liberal guy who’s running on a record of job creation, they would have to make a positive case for themselves, not merely a negative case against the status quo of Trump. Having experienced one shocking surprise in 2016, Democrats are positively paranoid about another one in 2020.

ADDENDUM: Ugh. Congratulations to the New England Patriots, again. This might be their most impressive championship yet, because I feel like for three straight playoff games we heard variations of, “The Chargers/Chiefs/Rams are really loaded with talent, equipped at all the key positions, built to beat a team like New England, this game could mark the changing of the guard and the end of an era . . . ” and in three straight games, Belichick and Brady and a seriously underrated defense made it look pretty easy. Last night some disputed the argument that the Patriots handled the Chiefs easily, but it felt like on every third-and-long, Brady found Edelman, Hogan, or Gronk for pitch-and-catch.

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