Conservatives Seek to Blot Bob McDonnell's Name from the Book of Reagan

Jamelle Bouie / The American Prospect

I wrote yesterday that Ken Cuccinelli was the clear winner of the fight over Virginia's new transportation bill. Yes, it passed the General Assembly and is on its way to becoming law, but Cuccinelli successfully positioned himself as an opponent of new spending and higher taxes, and in a low-turnout election where energized supporters are key, Cuccinelli bought himself a small advantage.

As did Terry McAuliffe, who—in supporting the bill—positioned himself in the sensible center of Virginia politics. The only loser in this fight, so far, is the governor, Republican Bob McDonnell. In his campaign for the governorship, as Scott Galupo points out for The American Conservative, McDonnell pledged not to raise taxes to pay for new transportation projects. When fully implemented, however, the current bill would raise taxes on Virginians by $6.1 billion over the next five years. Given the trade-off—better roads, bridges and mass transit for more than 8 million people—I think that's a fair price to pay.

Conservative activists aren't so understanding. Free from the demands of governing, they have the luxury of attacking McDonnell for his choices and concessions, which include Obamacare's Medicaid expansion (attached to gain Democratic support). At Red State, for example, Erick Erickson denounces McDonnell as a sellout and a fraud:

[W]hen push comes to shove, when the time comes that being a conservative demands that you stand up for what’s right and reject the easy way out, Bob McDonnell is not going to stand on principle. [...]

Bob McDonnell is a perfect example of the worst kind of Republican. He has no principles that he won’t sell out if he thinks the situation demands it. He is interested in the praise of liberal editorial pages for his balanced leadership, which is really just selling out the people who got him elected. His policy legacy will now be trading higher taxes for a massive entitlement expansion. How pathetic.

Likewise, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page is so enraged by McDonnell's push to pass the transportation bill that it strikes him from its list of acceptable 2016 contenders:

This fiasco will haunt Republicans in a state that holds elections in November. Probable Democratic nominee for Governor Terry McAuliffe endorsed the bill knowing it erases any GOP advantage on taxes and spending. Mr. Cuccinelli, the likely Republican nominee, opposed the bill but must now find a way to rally a splintered GOP and demoralized conservatives. At least Republicans can erase Mr. McDonnell's name as a national candidate or VP choice in 2016.

The governor of Virginia can only serve for four years, and in his tenure, Bob McDonnell has been an exceptionally conservative governor of Virginia. He has tightened access to reproductive health services, pushed a conservative education reform plan (in addition to hundreds of millions in K-12 spending cuts), slashed more than $2 billion from the state budget, supported offshore drilling, and signed a bill that sought to exempt Virginians from the health insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

The transportation bill, in fact, is one of the few times where he has tried to govern from the center. Unfortunately for McDonnell, his solid record of conservatism isn't enough to shield him from charges of apostasy.

I've been critical of Republican politicians like Bobby Jindal, who use reformist rhetoric to mask a substantive commitment to right-wing policies. But if I were in that position—an ambitious Republican governor, trying to distinguish himself from the pack—I would take a similar approach. McDonnell's transportation bill isn't liberal—it's a conservative attempt to fund infrastructure by charging citizens for the services they use. And while this might earn him support at the state-level, there's no real constituency for this approach in the national Republican Party. Indeed, as Ryan Lizza notes in his New Yorker profile of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (also a Virginian), congressional Republicans are working on a proposal to balance the budget in ten years—a plan that would make Paul Ryan blush (his draconian "roadmap" takes 20 years to balance the budget) if he weren't writing it.

By focusing on rhetoric over policy, Jindal is making the smarter choice, and avoiding the ire of conservative activists who see no reason to change their approach, even as they lurch from one defeat (the 2012 elections) to another (the fiscal cliff).

If you are hoping for a Republican Party that sees promise in a different approach to public policy, the current attacks on Bob McDonnell are a good sign you shouldn't hold your breath.