It’s time for a new playbook in Virginia

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

On Nov. 18, 2008 — just two weeks after Virginia strayed from red to blue voting for Obama in the 2008 presidential election — the U.S. Navy, still under Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush, announced its intention to relocate an aircraft carrier from Norfolk to Mayport, Fla.  Virginia lawmakers fought back, but it took until early 2012 to finally scuttle or at least delay the move for at least another five years.

National security interests were cited as the reason for the carrier move — ostensibly concerns about the vulnerability of having all five East Coast carriers based in Norfolk.  An overly active imagination is not required to speculate that political retribution by outgoing Republicans could have been at work. Virginia had just voted for a Democratic presidential ticket for the first time in 40 years.

One year later the tables turned in the Virginia gubernatorial election.  Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli were elected to office.  It was the first time since 1997 that GOP candidates had won all three top posts.  In the ensuing three years, the drumbeat of anti-Washington rhetoric has consistently sounded from the commonwealth’s top offices.

By early 2010, Cuccinelli was filing suit in federal court to block national health-care reform.  Legal challenges were mounted over global warming research at the University of Virginia.  Furthermore, state institutions were informed that anti-discrimination policies toward sexual minorities did not conform to the Code of Virginia.  One by one, each of these positions became ill-advised public relations gaffes and were either denied by the courts or downgraded through policy changes.

McDonnell campaigned on making Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast.  While the federal government is ostensibly moving forward with plans to auction offshore sites, over the past three years projects to drill for oil or gas or to erect wind farms off Virginia’s coast have not materialized.

For his part, Bolling became the tie-breaking vote in the 2012 General Assembly, which will be remembered for legislation on social issues: abortion, voting rights and easing of gun laws, some of which passed into law and some of which did not.  All at a time when fiscal responsibility and infrastructure funding could have taken center stage.

In the days following last month’s election of Barack Obama to a second presidential term, McDonnell announced that Virginia would not create a state health-care exchange as allowed under the Affordable Patient Care and Protection Act, citing unknown costs and despite pre-election rhetoric that a state-controlled health-care insurance option would be preferable to a federal one.

The next day, responding to concerns over the looming federal budget cuts, the governor asked all state agencies to submit expense reduction plans equal to 4 percent of their annual budgets.  Across-the-board cuts have become Virginia’s knee-jerk answer to budget shortfalls (including during Tim Kaine’s administration).  Not unlike business, it is doubtful that government can save its way to long-term prosperity.  True fiscal responsibility ultimately must include finding sustainable sources of revenue growth.

The failure of the Romney-Ryan ticket came from a Republican Party that is in national disarray.  The party typically fields presidential candidates (including Romney) who have patiently waited their turn.  A look back at this year’s Republican primary shows as many as eight candidates vying for the nomination; the party’s 2008 primary featured a similar parade, hardly a picture of clear leadership.

At the state level, Virginia’s Republican Party also is worn at the seams.  Bolling is the one who has dutifully waited, only to face a very competitive challenge from within his own party by Cuccinelli for next year’s gubernatorial nomination.

To be sure, Virginia’s Democratic Party has its own problems.  For most of the past three years, the Democratic field for the 2013 governor’s race has been limited to one contender, Terry McAuliffe.  A former chair of the Democratic National Committee under President Bill Clinton, McAuliffe has previously flirted with gubernatorial runs in New York and Florida, and unsuccessfully ran in 2009 for governor of Virginia, losing to Creigh Deeds in the Democratic primary, but has never held elected office.

Popular whispers encouraging Mark Warner to abandon the U.S. Senate for a chance at a second stay in the commonwealth’s Executive Mansion sound a bit like “Red Ryder, Red Ryder won’t you please come home?”  Though popular across the commonwealth, Warner still faces Virginia’s proven record of electing governors from the party opposite the one occupying the White House.

Regardless of party, it’s time for Virginia’s political playbook to change.  Anti-White House rhetoric over the past three years has failed.  It is time for both sides to reach across the aisle. 

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