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Bob McDonnell, grownup in the room

By Lee Hockstader

Less than a year after assuming office as governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell has staked a claim to being the grownup in the room among the triumvirate of Republicans atop the state's political hierarchy.

The governor, who ran a focused, disciplined campaign last fall, has had his slip-ups in office. What's been impressively adult has been his efforts to fix the damage and move on, generally with an absolute minimum of partisan rancor.

And even in the face of a Tea Party revolt against the Republican mainstream, McDonnell has taken sensibly moderate stances on a string of issues, even when he might have been expected to embrace conservative orthodoxy.

Yes, he badly flubbed his history last spring, dismissing slavery as a sideshow to the Civil War while indulging in what seemed perilously close to nostalgia for the Confederacy. But if you want to see a model of classy contrition -- as opposed to rote political damage control -- check out his movingly well written speech making amends for his blunder here.

His apology wasn't just slipped into cyberspace late on a Friday evening, It was delivered at a historically black college, at an academic conference on the the Civil War whose attendees included some of the nation's most prominent historians. Talk about a tough audience.

Similarly, as my colleague at The Post, Anita Kumar, reported over the weekend, McDonnell "is on track to restore voting rights to more felons than either of his Democratic predecessors -- a surprising development for a conservative Republican who served as a law-and-order attorney general."

Particularly surprising to his GOP base, I'm guessing. The governor's move is a reversal of a plan announced last spring that would have forced ex-convicts to write an essay in support of their application to have their voting rights restored.

True, something like 300,000 people -- disproportionately minorities -- still cannot go to the polls and vote in Virginia on account of their criminal past. I think that's a disgrace; for most of them, particularly the non-violent ones, voting rights should be restored automatically, as is the practice in many other states. Still, McDonnell's efforts to grease the wheels of the state bureaucracy to help convicted felons cast ballots on election Day is a blow for fair-mindedness.

Lastly, take a look at the signals the governor is sending on transportation funding, which could very likely define his governorship -- much as Tim Kaine's repeated failure on the same issue did much to define his.

His preliminary moves to find dollars for roads have not been trivial. They include his proposal to privatize liquor sales and the audit he ordered of the state's transportation department. Each of those could get hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into desperately needed construction and maintenance contracts.

Plenty of Republican governors could seize on that and announce -- dishonestly -- problem solved! No more funding needed! But McDonnell leveled with Virginians, telling them the hard truth that even a charitable estimate of the dollars he's found and proposed won't fix the commonwealth's roads. What's needed, he said, are long-term funding solutions.

I'd read that as new taxes; the governor may well have other ideas. But at least he gets that the problem is impervious to one-time windfalls (like selling liquor licenses) and administrative efficiencies (like his audit).

By contrast, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling seized on the audit, slammed it together with the privatizing liquor sales and -- presto! -- proclaimed that $2.5 billion in what he made sound like fresh funds would soon flow into fixing the state's highway system. Aside from that pretty piece of magical accounting, Bolling didn't say a word about the need for ongoing or long-term revenues. Seems he'd rather not get his hands dirty.

Then there's Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general, who's managed to become a darling of the GOP's most zealous climate-change deniers, gay bashers and Obamacare dead-enders in just nine months in office. Give Cuccinelli a hot button, and he'll push it. The man can't help himself; fancying himself a man of principle, he loves nothing more than an ideologically-charged fight.

Lately Cuccinelli has been dropping public hints that -- contrary to his earlier avowals -- he may in fact challenge Bolling for the party's gubernatorial nomination in 2013. Given the leanings of the state's GOP base, Cuccinelli's declaration is likely to be a starter's pistol signaling a sprint to the right. My guess is we'll see the two men try to outdo each other in that regard when they attend Virginia's Tea Party convention Oct. 8 and 9.

McDonnell will appear at the Tea Party convention as well. It will be instructive to see whether he panders to the party animals or continues to distinguish himself, as he has until now, as a voice of relative reason in a political era in thrall to rhetorical bloodlust. And if he continues to tack to the center, will that make him more or less attractive as prospective vice presidential material?

By Lee Hockstader  | September 27, 2010; 3:46 PM ET
Categories:  Hockstader  | Tags:  Lee Hockstader  
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"McDonnell will appear at the Tea Party convention as well. It will be instructive to see whether he panders to the party animals or continues to distinguish himself, as he has until now, as a voice of relative reason in a political era in thrall to rhetorical bloodlust. "

McDonnell has announced his intention of stumping for anyone on a GOP ticket regardless of their relative qualifications for the office they are seeking. I think your question is answered. He's going to be a pandering, unreasoned ideologue.

Posted by: washpost18 | September 28, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

I hope the governor, with equal grace and maturity, will listen to concerned legislators and citizens and back away from his proposal to privatize liquor stores.

The CDC tells us that in order to control alcohol abuse communities should lower the number of places where folks can purchase alcohol and reduce the hours and days for alcohol sales. But the governor's plan does away with our subtle and well-controlled 322 ABC stores and puts hard liquor in 1,000 new distribution points -- drug, convenience stores, gas stations, Giant, Costco-- available 24/7.

His plan hangs on the "principle" of reducing government. But the state does have a vital interest in controling a potent substance that causes so much harm and costs to society when abused. And abuse will rise with availability, particularly among the underage. See the Marin Institute study, among others. The poor will be disproportionally affected.

The ABC system works well for our state and provides a tidy annual sum we can count on in these tough financial times. It also provides a measure of the peace in the Commonwealth that McDonnell speaks of in the Civil War conference speech.

I'd like to see the man succeed so that Virginia succeeds. But he must open his eyes and take a fresh look at this proposal which will have a greater impact on quality of life in Virginia than some seem to realize. If it passes, it's a grave mistake, and he leaves a tarnished legacy after his 4 years are done.

Posted by: anonymousid | September 29, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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