Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

McDonnell’s mixed legacy: Ethics scandal detracts from pragmatic conservative record

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s four-year term has featured two remarkable ironies. His signature achievement required a broken campaign promise, and his long-standing reputation for integrity was tarnished by an ethics scandal.

That’s what one calls a mixed legacy.

(Win McNamee/Getty Images) - Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell answers questions during a news conference Aug. 15 in Leesburg.

The latest on Virginia politics

Clear leaders emerge in primary races in Northern Virginia, finance reports show

Clear leaders emerge in primary races in Northern Virginia, finance reports show

Republican Barbara Comstock in the 10th District and Democrat Don Beyer in the 8th District are ahead.

Va. Republicans aren’t blinking in Medicaid showdown

Va. Republicans aren’t blinking in Medicaid showdown

Although expansion of coverage is backed by some important donors, GOP lawmakers maintain opposition.

In 10th District debate, GOP hopefuls target front-runner

Six Virginians depict themselves as the conservative heirs to retiring U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf.

Read more

As McDonnell (R) prepares to step down Saturday, it’s more difficult than usual to predict how history will judge his performance. Much will depend on what happens in the next few weeks, when federal prosecutors decide whether to ask a grand jury to indict him on corruption charges.

Still, it’s possible to draw some conclusions, even if they’re incomplete. To do so, I went back and looked at a column I wrote two days after McDonnell’s landslide win in 2009.

I urged the governor-elect then to fulfill four campaign pledges of particular importance to Northern Virginia: Find money for roads. Protect education. “Don’t go Sarah Palin on us,” such as by leading crusades against abortion and gay rights. Don’t demonize immigrants.

Basically, I asked McDonnell to honor his own pitch to the voters. He said he would govern as a results-oriented conservative focusing on bread-and-butter­ topics rather than right-wing social causes.

Give the man his due. On those big issues, overall, he did as he promised. I often disagreed with him, but I respect him for matching actions to rhetoric.

“He presented himself as a positive, optimistic conservative who wanted to get things done, but in a conservative way,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said. “On the whole, he did that.”

That’s one reason it was so disappointing to see the ethics controversy erupt unexpectedly last year.

McDonnell had the opportunity to go out as a notably successful Virginia governor, especially after signing last year’s historic transportation deal. He set a constructive tone in Richmond and was energetic and attentive about legislation.

But his standing has been stained by the federal investigation into $165,000 of gifts and payments to him and his family from a Virginia businessman. As a result, an unforeseen part of McDonnell’s legacy could be overdue reform of Virginia’s lax state ethics laws.

It’s not clear why McDonnell put so much at risk by accepting the largesse. It seems to have resulted from a mix of financial pressures on the family, his wife’s expensive tastes and an enormous blind spot regarding how the gifts would be perceived.

Of course McDonnell’s reputation will revive if he isn’t indicted, or if he is charged but found not guilty. Regardless, the controversy has distracted attention from his substantive accomplishments.

In his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday evening, McDonnell said he has prayed that the controversy would not obscure the good that he and the legislature have done.

On transportation, the subject of greatest importance to our region, McDonnell made the right choice when anti-tax ideology clashed with real-life practicalities.

McDonnell campaigned strongly in 2009 on his promise not to raise taxes. But he signed a sizable sales tax increase last year when he concluded it was the only way to get needed funds for roads and transit.

“He did the homework. . . . He found it was mathematically impossible to build roads, much less maintain them,” without adjusting taxes, said Del. Dave Albo (R-Fairfax).

The political cost with the Republican base was considerable. McDonnell didn’t attend the Republican Party convention in May, where he surely would have been booed.

The tax increase meant McDonnell could add funds for transportation without having to gut support for public education. Moreover, he has honored one of his most prominent promises to support higher education, by putting the state on track to add 100,000 graduates by 2025.

McDonnell’s handling of hot-button social issues drew much criticism from Democrats, as he approved two controversial measures on abortion. One imposed stricter building codes on abortion clinics; the other required women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound.

Nevertheless, McDonnell’s approach was in line with what he told voters in 2009. He said he wouldn’t take the lead in pushing such changes but he would sign antiabortion bills that reached his desk.

Although it hasn’t received much attention, I think one of McDonnell’s biggest shortcomings was his failure to ensure that the Virginia GOP copy his results-oriented style in picking his potential successor.

Despite being a popular governor drawing national attention, McDonnell was unable to engineer the nomination of his favored candidate, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R). The nod went to the more hard-line candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), who then lost to Terry McAuliffe (D).

McDonnell’s legacy thus includes a message for the state GOP: Relearn the lesson of the 2009 campaign. In Virginia, pragmatism trumps ideology.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
mccartney
.

 
Read what others are saying