Bob McDonnell HQ can’t be a happy place to work this week.
The governor’s race has been static for a few months now. Sen. Creigh Deeds has been biding his time, waiting for the summer to pass by, his campaign secure in the knowledge that McDonnell’s record is awfully far to the right. Sure, Deeds has the problem of being so centrist that it’s a turn-off to many Democrats, but that will work itself out. As some Democrats see Deeds and McDonnell as birds of a feather, so too do many voters only know the McDonnell of the past few years, the calm, centrist, rational guy. But McDonnell’s got a long, long record in the legislature as being very, very conservative. He’s got brilliant cred among the base, because they know that beneath the veneer is the real Bob McDonnell, the one who was still introducing some awfully conservative legislation as recently as 2003, his second-to-last year in the legislature. (Of the seven bills he introduced, four were about abortion.) That’s not the sort of record that the Deeds campaign had to do much to highlight—it would highlight itself in time. Though they started to get nervous in the past month, and started to raise the issue of abortion, that was nothing next to the totality of McDonnell’s record.
And, of course, McDonnell stuck his foot in his mouth. Actually, it’s more like his entire leg. His 93-page master’s thesis to get his master’s in public policy from the ultra-conservative Regent University—owned and operated by Pat Robertson—takes about the farthest right positions that could be discussed in polite society: criminalizing birth control, prohibiting women from working, establishing laws to punish the gay and the unwed, and enshrining Judeo-Christian law as the law of the United States. The thesis is entitled “The Republican Party’s Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade,” and McDonnell uses it to set forth that very vision.
McDonnell was 34 years old at the time that he wrote it, married, with children, and only a few months away from launching his campaign for the House of Delegates. This was in 1989, not all that long ago, when he was thirteen years removed from getting his undergraduate degree, nine years from his first master’s, he’d already had a career in the military and worked in business management. (Incidentally, his degree wasn’t awarded by Regent University, but from “CBN University.” Yes, he got his master’s from a cable TV network.)
The Deeds campaign didn’t have to dig up this gem—McDonnell volunteered it to the Washington Post in response to a question, telling them, bizarrely, that he “wrote [his] thesis on welfare policy.” (He didn’t.) Amy Gardner simply retrieved a copy from the Regent University library, where it was on file.
McDonnell recently described his 91-page masterwork as a “term paper” in an effort to minimize what, in reality, was the culmination of years of research, drafts, and writing, as anybody who has completed a master’s thesis will attest to. With 171 footnotes and 95 works in the bibliography (he read 2.9 works for every page that he wrote), this was clearly a significant undertaking. There’s even an acknowledgements section, where he thanks his parents for their wisdom, his wife for her “expert clerical support” and “[providing him] with the time to devote to this project.” As this was a master’s thesis, he also acknowledges the assistance of the committee that was convened to guide him through and review his thesis, which included the dean of the college as the chairman of the committee.
Lest there be any doubt to the purpose of this essay, he wraps up the treatise with a “Conclusions and Recommendations” section, in which he provides specific guidance to Republicans about how to act on the theories that he’s put forth in the prior 59 pages. This is where he advises an elimination of the policies brought about by “the bankrupcy of the Great Society vision”—social security, Medicare, Medicaid, the minimum wage, food stamps, etc., one must assume. He declares that “leaders must correct the conventional fokelore about the separation of church and state,” calling on “government at all levels [to] unleash the power of the church” in order to “give the gospel…that is the only solution for the hopeless” (p. 62) such as by government subsidization of churches (“the church can permissibly use federal funds to promote traditional family values,” p. 63.) He calls for a $80B cut in federal spending on “family support services,” and declares that “a taxation system…based on an ability to pay, and awards deductions and distributions based on need, is socialist…” (p. 64). In a statement getting a great deal of exposure, he specifically calls on “every level of government” to “statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators” (p. 65). Though McDonnell concedes that “such thinking may be attacked for lacking political realism in a changing world,” he argues that “it is imperative that government stand firm in support of traditional family values” (p. 65). One of the nastier bits in the thesis, admittedly a low-key one, comes on page 52, where he refers to “lower-income ‘families,'” placing the word “families” in derision quotes, indicating that he doesn’t believe low-income families are, in fact, families at all.
And that’s to say nothing about his fifteen point action plan (on pages 66-68)—those are the bits that you’ve heard the most about: school vouchers, “chipping away” at abortion until it’s illegal even in cases of rape and incest, covenant marriage, etc.
McDonnell’s defense consists of claiming, alternately a) that he has no memory of believing those things b) lashing out at Creigh Deeds for accusing him (which he hadn’t) of believing things that he wrote in great detail about believing and c) that he doesn’t believe any of those things anymore. None of these are really winning tactics.
McDonnell has also tried out the “young and foolish” defense, something that isn’t getting him very far, since no doubt many of the reporters covering this story are significantly younger than McDonnell was at the time. (I spent last weekend at the Society for Professional Journalists‘ conference in Indianapolis, where I learned the the average age of a reporter is approximately 12.) If this tactic works out, I’ll be encouraged—I’ve been blogging continually since the age of seventeen, over which time I’ve changed my mind on the death penalty, global climate change, and universal health care. I’d been thinking I could expect a free pass for anything I’d written prior to my mid-twenties, but it turns out I’ve got a few more years to go yet. Jeff Frederick has a similar lament.
McDonnell is calling the release of his already-public thesis by the Washington Post a “backwards-looking scare tactic”, galled that anybody would think that he’d believe anything now that he believed at the tender age of 34. He says that he now believes that “government should not discriminate based on race or sex or creed or sexual orientation.” Yet as attorney general he opposed Gov. Tim Kaine’s continuance of Gov. Mark Warner’s executive order barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (Which I witnessed an unintentionally-hilarious hearing about at the legislature back in 2006.) In 2003, while representing Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates, he said that “engaging in anal or oral sex might disqualify a person from being a judge,” in the words of the Daily Press. In 2003 he also introduced a bill establishing covenant marriage, one of the important aspects of his thesis, which he also disavowed. For weeks he’s feigned confusion when Deeds brings up the topic of abortion, but four of the seven bills he introduced in 2004 were on that topic. He opposes Griswold v. Connecticut (pages 7-8), the landmark Supreme Court case that established the right to birth control, and he repeatedly voted in favor of limiting access to birth control (in 2002 and 2003, for instance). I could go on. See the Deeds campaign’s correlation of McDonnell’s thesis to his bills for a more detailed accounting.
The real trouble here for McDonnell is that he cannot meaningfully distance himself from the statements that he made in his thesis. Not only because he has acted upon many of them throughout his political career, but because like any good graduate student, everything that he wrote is well-sourced, firmly backed up, and logically based on the prior statement. He’s very persuasive. For instance, he writes on page nineteen:
The family as an institution existed antecedent to civil government, and hence is not subject to being defined by it. It is in the law of Nature of the created Order that the Creator instituted marriage and family in Eden, where He ordained that “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Family arises out of this divinely-created covenant of marriage between a man and woman, the terms of which can neither be originally set nor subsequently altered by the parties or the state.
Each step logically follows the prior. So if he no longer believes this—as he claims—then which bit does he no longer believe? Does he believe that government existed prior to family? Does he believe that government may defined what constitutes a family? That God created man in Eden? That God created the covenant of marriage between man and woman? That government cannot overrule God? My guess is that he still believes all of those things, and that there’s not a single step within that logical chain that he’d be willing to disavow.
Likewise his statement about discrimination, on page 34:
If the government at all levels has a duty to uphold the family, then it follows that it has the authority to legitimately discriminate in support of this goal
McDonnell says that he no longer believes that government can discriminate, but that necessitates that he no longer believes that “government at all levels has a duty to uphold the family.” Again, I don’t think there’s any logical step there that he’s going to disavow.
Would McDonnell-as-governor be willing to compromise his beliefs in the face of overwhelming opposition, as Kaine said he’d do—and has done—regarding abortion and the death penalty? “Leadership…does not require giving voters what they want,” McDonnell writes. “[T]he profound wisdom of God’s law for the family will appear as folly to foolish men” (p. 55-56). An enormous chunk of the paper (section 5, “Political Considerations in the Development of Family Policy,” and section 6, “Conclusions and Recommendations”) is dedicated to the idea that half-measures are useless, that any compromise is a form of failure, and that Republicans who do not support an unabashed, full-throated conservatism are doing no good. “While obviously a difficult proposition, Republicans should adhere to the party’s foundational principles even if it is to their own political detriment. Subscribers to need-driven pragmatism should be challenged to make policy decisions reflecting their respect for family liberty” (p. 66).
Not to put too fine a point on it, McDonnell has written a short book explaining the things that he wants to accomplish, he has worked unflaggingly to accomplish them, and now he’s claiming that it’s ludicrous that anybody would believe that he ever supported such things.
So far there’s been no significant effect in McDonnell’s polling numbers. I think that’s to be expected. The fact that he wrote a thesis some years ago doesn’t really interest most voters. But what this does is open the door to discuss his fairly extreme record relative to his promise to deliver just such performance in office. That’s a gift to Democrats. McDonnell has been able to present a counterfeit self to voters during his campaign thus far, mouthing centrist platitudes that are hugely different from his positions in the legislature and as attorney general (and, almost certainly, his beliefs). Now opponents of McDonnell have a wide range of issues on which they can point to his crystal clear statements on that issue and his record to show that he spent decades following the path that he’d established within this thesis, counter to his claims on the topic in question. He’s gone from being on the offense on nearly every issue to being on the defense on nearly every issue, forced to explain how, when, and why he changed his mind on such key, formative issues, the sorts of topics on which most people have their minds made up in their mid 20s.
The Deeds campaign has been premised on this eventuality. Without an opening to make McDonnell’s record a central issue, I don’t see that Deeds could crack 45% in November. I’ve been counting on something like this to happen, but I didn’t expect it to arrive wrapped in a bow, personally packaged by Bob McDonnell.