What Bob McDonnell can teach politicians

Four years and one week ago, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gave the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address. Today, he and his wife, Maureen, were indicted on federal corruption charges in connection to their relationship with a donor named Jonnie Williams.

The news of McDonnell's indictment had been expected, and his political career had long since fallen by the wayside. (This "Simpsons" tidbit accurately sums up McDonnell's political career.) But the arc of McDonnell's political  life is an example of the new rules of politics and a reminder of some very old ones.

The "new" part of this story is the rapidness with which McDonnell went from superstar to pariah.  McDonnell's selection as the Republican responder to Obama's State of the Union was a tangible sign of his quick ascendancy within the party and the belief that his 2009 gubernatorial campaign was a model for GOPers across the country to follow.  McDonnell's vision for government -- "Government should have this clear goal: Where opportunity is absent, we must create it. Where opportunity is limited, we must expand it. Where opportunity is unequal, we must make it open to everyone." -- seemed like just the sort of thing that a party trounced in the 2008 election needed to hear.  For the better part of his term, McDonnell rode an improving Virginia economy and high personal popularity ratings.  When we released our first handicapping of the 2012 Republican veepstakes, McDonnell was ranked #2, behind only Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. (Paul Ryan was ranked #10.)

And then it all fell apart -- quickly. By the start of 2013, it became apparent that something was amiss with McDonnell's relationship with Williams.  The story, which was led by the Post's Own Roz Helderman, just kept getting worse (check out this amazing timeline of events) and by the summer, it was clear that McDonnell had become a major problem for the GOP in Virginia and nationally. By the fall, the only question was whether he would be indicted, not whether he had any sort of future in politics.  It all happened fast and McDonnell seemed incapable of grasping how to (effectively) message in the middle of a public relations (and legal) meltdown.

What's old in the McDonnell story is the semi-permeable line between wealthy donors who help politicians get elected and the politicians themselves. That is a story as old as time. And, it seems quite clear from what we know about the McDonnells and Jonnie Williams that Virginia's First Couple became enamored with the sort of lifestyle that Williams provided them.  A vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake! A Ferrari (drive)! Rolexes!

The deeper the McDonnells got into the world of Williams -- and the longer that involvement seemed consequence-less -- the line that separates donors from the politicians they donate to (which, in truth, is always somewhat blurry) got erased completely.  As we wrote in a post last summer, it is remarkable to consider that McDonnell, a politician whose cautious reputation preceded him, put himself in a relationship with a donor that was quite clearly inappropriate, at best. He never realized he had crossed the line until he was so far on the wrong side of it there was no hope to make it back.

The political life of Bob McDonnell then amounts to a sort of public service announcement for politicians everywhere. The lessons? Always remember what side of the line you stand on. Remember that donors aren't your friends. And remember that if you do something wrong, get it all out as soon as possible, apologize and try like hell to move on. McDonnell failed on all three fronts. Maybe his failure will serve as a reminder to future politicians of how not to handle success.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House for the newspaper and Web site.
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