On Aug. 21, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell got another chance at national political exposure when he was an invited guest on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. McDonnell got the gig because he had just been named head of the Republican Governor’s Association.
McDonnell, who it seems obvious would like to be a vice presidential candidate in 2012, used the show as a bully pulpit to go after President Obama, criticizing his financial policies and telling him he should look at McDonnell’s approach to creating jobs and balancing the budget in Virginia.
Yet McDonnell’s chance at national fame actually illustrates a unique governance weakness of Virginia. While McDonnell’s new position may be great for him, it will nonetheless be a distraction as he enters the last phase of his gubernatorial term, which ends in 2014.
He’s hardly alone in this. Former Gov. Tim Kaine was named head of the Democratic National Committee in the last days of his term, a reward for helping to bring the state to Obama in 2008. But Kaine ended up traveling a lot in his new post. In October 2009, for instance, he spent 14 days on national party business in other states or the District, meaning he wasn’t around Richmond much to mind the store.
Ditto Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore. He spent his last days as governor in 2002 as head of the Republican National Committee. That turned his attention away from Virginia affairs, such as his failed attempt to get his signature car tax issue past Republican opposition in the General Assembly or watch over John Forbes, whom Gilmore had appointed head of a tobacco settlement funding agency and who was later was convicted of embezzlement.
Other governors with bigger ambitions than their jobs were Democrats Chuck Robb and Doug Wilder. Robb wanted to parlay his marriage to a daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson to national office. Wilder, the country’s first African-American governor, announced his plans to run for president only 18 months into his term.
The reason for these problems is simple. Virginia is the only state left in the union to restrict gubernatorial terms to just one. Mississippi and Kentucky had held on to the one-term limit but eventually dumped it.
On the bright side, it might seem that Virginia politicians are exceptionally promising. Or it could be that they are simply conveniently close to the national press corps in Washington.
Whatever, it also could be time to reexamine the one-term rule. since it guarantees that Virginia governors don’t have a chance to accomplish much in office and encourages them to look to greener pastures at the price of serving their constituents.