The pull of the past



Ponder this: When voters size up a candidate, should they basically ignore the person's early beliefs and behavior - or should voters view those early beliefs and behavior as relevent conviction and character clues?

This question is hardly new. They came up in 1992 when Bill Clinton's detractors assailed his youthful efforts to avoid military service. They came up in 2000 when George W. Bush's opponents unearthed, at the eleventh hour, the DWI charge that fit the narrative of his reckless young adulthood.

And now they've surfaced again in the current race for governor on Virginia - one of only two statewide races this autumn (the other, of course, is in New Jersey. Both will be spun by the parties as barometers of the national mood, and, for that reason alone, attention must be paid.

Until about four weeks ago, the Virginia story had a very simple plot line: Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell, currently the state attorney general, was cruising to a cinch November victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds, thereby demonstrating that Virginia (which voted for Barack Obama last year) was not trending blue after all. Besides, in recent decades the party that controls the White House virtually always loses the Virginia governor's race in the year after a national election; this Virginia race looked to be no different...

...Until the voters learned about the McDonnell master's thesis.

Suddenly, it's a wide open contest, basically because Virginia's female voters have concluded that the Republican candidate is rooted somewhere in the 1950s, back when society deemed it preferable that women be barefoot, pregnant, and homebound.

Female Virginians have turned a runaway race into a nail-biter. McDonnell's 15-point August lead in the Washington Post's polling has been slashed to four points; elsewhere, the latest Rasmussen poll (conservatives always love to cite Rasmussen, which habitually oversamples Republicans) now shows McDonnell ahead by only two. This is all because of what McDonnell wrote in his master's thesis 20 years ago, while pursuing a degree at Pat Robertson's evangelical Regent University.

McDonnell has tried to dismiss what he calls "a decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student." But he was 34 years old at the time, a married guy on the cusp of running for the Virginia legislature, which might lead one to conclude that by this point in his life, his beliefs were hard-wired.

In the thesis, he denounced the "dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family." He said that feminists are among the "real enemies of the traditional family." He endorsed "covenant marriage," by which government would make it much more difficult for couples to divorce. He lamented the growing popularity of day care, which arose from the lamentable desire of women to "seek workplace equality and individual self-actualization." He opposed federal tax credits for child care expenditures: "Must government subsidize the choices of a generation with an increased appetite for the materialistic components of the American dream?" (Translation: Working women, by definition, are materialistic.)

In the thesis, McDonnell argued that all government policies should be aimed at preserving the family as defined by God (or, more specifically, God as McDonnell defined Him): "It is in the law of Nature of the created Order that the Creator instituted marriage and family in Eden." Therefore, he wrote, government should crack down on anybody who violates that law of Nature.

Gay people, for instance.

At various points McDonnell equated gay behavior with pornography and drug abuse. He endorsed Big Brother's policing of private behavior; in one passage, he mocked "the perverted notion of liberty that each individual should be able to live out his sexual life in any way he chooses without interference from the state."

And there was this passage: "It is also becoming clear in modern culture that the voting American mainstream is not willing to accept a true pro-family ideologue....Leadership, however, does not require giving voters what they want, for whimsical and capricious government would result. Republican legislators must exercise independent professional judgment as statesmen, to make decisions that are objectively right..." (Translation: McDonnell admits, in the first sentence, that his views are outside the mainstream - yet he thinks that such views should be imposed on the mainstream anyway, simply because they are "objectively right.")

If McDonnell suffers more erosion among women voters (particularly the younger women between ages 18 and 44; particularly in populous, cosmopolitan Northern Virgina), he could well lose this race that seemed so easily winnable. And there's polling evidence that a lot of younger women haven't turned into the thesis story yet, an information deficit that Creigh Deeds' Democratic campaign is working hard to erase.

Is it unfair to McDonnell that women voters are judging him adversely, based on something he wrote 20 years ago? Yes, he was 34 years old at the time, but what about the fact that today his wife and daughters are working women?

True that. Nevertheless, there is one other factor working against McDonnell's efforts to leave the past behind: His repeated attempts, as an elected Virginia legislator, to put into practice (via bill passage) the views he espoused in the thesis.

For evidence, I submit McDonnell's appearance yesterday on Fox News Sunday. And Chris Wallace deserves a shout-out for his scrupulous questioning. The exchange needs no elaboration from me.

Wallace: "Isn’t that (thesis) a pretty radical agenda?"

McDonnell: "No. I think those are a couple of quotes out of a 100-page document, Chris, and what the whole purpose of the — of the thesis was to say, look, families are the bedrock of society. And I think there’s broad agreement on that, and that government programs should not undermine the family, because that will lead to more government spending for problems that occur when the family’s not intact. Look, it's 20 years ago and some of my views over time have changed."

Wallace: "In fact, we checked the record. As a legislator, you voted against a resolution that would have called for ending wage discrimination based on gender. You voted against extending child care services. And you voted against extending or requiring health insurance plans to cover birth control. So it’s not just the thesis.”

McDonnell: "Well, that's - I've had 10,000 votes in the General Assembly...I think you have to look at my entire record."

When politicians plead "look at my entire record," it means they've been nailed. In fact, Wallace could have gone even further. McDonnell tried four times to pass a covenant marriage bill, and he continues to believe that abortions for rape and incest victims should be criminalized.

The political danger, for McDonnell, is that in addition to risking the loss of more female voters, he also risks losing some of his conservative base voters if he tries (as he did on Fox News) to downplay his right-wing views and voting record. After all, didn't he state in his thesis that social conservatives should behave "as statesmen," and stand up without apology for their "objectively right" convictions?

The thesis will dog McDonnell until election day, because it fits the narrative of his legislative career. Indeed, despite the American genius for reinvention, there is really no escaping the past. Not in politics, or in life...or in cinema. As Michael Corleone lamented in Godfather III, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."


A fond farewell to William Safire, the conservative New York Times columnist who died yesterday. Over a span of 32 years, I read him assiduously because he was a feisty contrarian and a marvelous wordsmith. His fictional tome on the Civil War, entitled Freedom, is still one of the best historical novels of the past 25 years. He was also a charming guy whose friendships spanned the ideological spectrum (my friend Judy Bachrach, the Washington writer, wrote this appreciation today).

And perhaps most importantly, 14 of his 23 books were devoted to the joys and mysteries of the English language; he was our Samuel Johnson, with a special interest in political lexicography. For instance, if you wanted to know how the term "crony" became a popular political pejorative, you checked with Safire (answer: "crony" was popularized by Times columnist Arthur Krock in 1946).

He also wrote up some rules for column writing, such as the need to end every piece with something punchy or wise: "Leave with a snapper, or sometimes a peroration."

We'll keep trying, Bill.