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The Evolving Conservative


Repulsed by a world in which every politician's senior thesis becomes a campaign issue and the occasional kindergarten essay makes it into an attack ad, Kevin Drum proposes the 25/25 rule: "it doesn't count if you did it more than 25 years ago or before your 25th birthday." This would be excellent for me, as nothing I do or say would count for another eight months. Given the odds that I will write something dumb over that period of time, I hereby ask Congress to move on this important legislative priority immediately. My future political viability depends on it.

That said, the subject here is not, in fact, me, but Bob McDonnell, the Virginia Republican who's running for governor and accidentally tipped some intrepid Washington Post reporters off to the existence of his graduate thesis on "welfare policy." Sadly for him, "welfare policy" did not begin to explain it:

He described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

I actually buy McDonnell's defense that his thinking has evolved. His last campaign manager was female, his wife works, five members of his senior staff as attorney general were women, one of his two daughters served in Iraq, and neither one is married. So there is legitimate reason to believe he's made his peace with the full participation of women in the workforce. But what about claims that the income tax is socialistic? Or that government should systematically discriminate against homosexuals?

McDonnell wasn't 25 when he wrote that thesis. He was 34, and a single year away from his first campaign for office. And it suggests that whatever pragmatic accommodations McDonnell has made with modernity, he's starting from an extraordinarily conservative ideological base.

McDonnell, of course, says that that's no longer true. His thinking has evolved. But when a committed social conservative is basing his campaign around evolution, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

Cartoon credit: Tom Toles.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 2, 2009; 10:33 AM ET
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The evolution joke is funny but hides a real danger for McDonnell. Your super red-meat family values conservative will often have to bite their tongue and vote for someone starting from a less conservative spot, after all not everyone has seen the light. But they are naturally going to be suspicious of a squish. If I am a Christian Dominionist I am not going to be happy with a guy willing to agree that women have a right to have a separate existence from their Lord and Master, at least not if he started from within the fold.

Traditionally Islam was very tolerant of Christianity and Judaism, after all we are all children of Abraham. But a Muslim converting to either was punishable by death. McDonnell need to be worried about being seen as an apostate, faith being in a lot of cases a one way road, you check in freely but don't get to check out.

Posted by: BruceWebb | September 2, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

While in McDonnell's case we need not invoke the following to consider his thesis (since it was just 20 years ago), I think it fair to add what we can call the McDonnell Exception:

If a candidate cites a statement or work that is otherwise exempt from consideration under the 25/25 Rule, that statement or work becomes fair game for political consideration. In this case, McDonnell mentioned it in reference to his "political roots," as the Post article put it, and didn't subsequently distance himself from it. So I think it'd be fair game, no matter how long ago it was written. (Disclosure: my employer has done work for Deeds.)

Oh, and of course, the 25/25 Rule shouldn't kick in until your 35th birthday. Sorry, Ezra. But as a general guideline, I like it.

Posted by: OpieCurious | September 2, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

McDonnell should explain why his views have changed and when. Then a miracle occurred and I am now more moderate does not cut it. The press should be holding his feet to the fire on this, since the thesis came straight out of the 1850's view of women, marriage, reproductive rights, and taxes.

Posted by: srw3 | September 2, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I'm a relatively forthright person, but even I find the occasional need to attach disclaimers to items from my past; however, McDonnell seems to be stretching the limits a bit more than I would. I'll try to reserve judgment until I hear more of his own explanation, if any, of his thesis.

Jenny Joseph recognized in a poem that the elderly have the right to a little freedom-to-wander and now you're proposing to give that same freedom to those under 25. Where's the progressivism... I mean we thirty-somethings deserve a mulligan or two (twelve would be handy).

To quote Jenny Joseph, "But maybe I ought to practice a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised When suddenly I am old and start to wear purple."

Posted by: rmgregory | September 2, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I think more attention needs to be paid to the fact that he admits in the thesis that his views are unpopular with the general populace, and thus conservatives like himself should hide their true extremism until they are in office, where they can then ignore the electorate and impose their extremism on the deserving populace.
It is awfully hard to walk back that sort of Manchurian Candidate stuff.

Posted by: flounder2 | September 2, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

A small nitpick, but I thought you'd turned 25 a few months ago?

Posted by: latts | September 2, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

"I actually buy McDonnell's defense that his thinking has evolved."

I don't. I believe his thinking is the same now as it was then.

Then: I'm writing a thesis for Regent University. I'll write what the professors want me to write.

Now: I'm running for Governor. I'll say what the voters want me to say.

Posted by: ostap666 | September 2, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

"But what about claims that the income tax is socialistic?"

It's still in the Communist Manifesto, isn't it?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | September 2, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

"He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples."

He gets the year wrong, Griswold vs. CT was decided in 1965. So much for facts when you go to Pat Robertson U.

Posted by: MerrillFrank | September 2, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Eisenstadt v. Baird legalized contraception for unmarried couples in 1972; Griswold legalized contraception for married couples.

I don't think there's any more reason to believe that McDonnell's views on women have changed than there is to believe that Mark Sanford's views on infidelity have changed: the fact that he lives a different life than he would prescribe for others doesn't mean that he wouldn't still prescribe it.

How often has a conservative's liberal family life ever prevented him from employing the power of the state to force everyone else to live as he demands? His wife and daughters are above the law; you and yours are not.

The evidence for that is, as Deeds et. al. have noted, his opposition to pay equity; whatever his personal policy, his public policy is anti-woman.

Further, with respect to anti-gay discrimination, he has supported it and he has practiced it. As a state legislator, McDonnell opposed the reappointment of a lesbian judge, Verbena Askew, because he thought "homosexual activity" disqualified her from serving. That was 2003, six years ago. As Attorney General, he refused to enforce an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in state employment. That was 2006, three years ago.

While I can see how a person might miss his anti-woman agenda - it's subtle - I can't see how anyone could miss his anti-gay agenda. As you can see, he has made no secret of his willingness to fire gay people and support others who would do the same.

Posted by: dcamsam | September 2, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

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