McDonnell, hands covering his mouth, palms and fingertips together as if in prayer, looks overcome with emotion. An applauding aide, tie aflutter and knees bent, appears to be doing a celebratory hop.
McDonnell looks very happy. And that’s a problem, at least now, as conservatives criticize the deal, which is heavy on taxes and came only after Democrats exacted a written pledge from the governor on Medicaid expansion. In supporting the deal, McDonnell broke a major campaign promise — made in 2009 while eviscerating Democrat R. Creigh Deeds for his willingness to raise taxes for transportation.
At times, McDonnell seems loath to admit it, offering contorted scenarios by which the $1.4 billion-a-year plan, which raises and rejiggers a byzantine mix of statewide and regional taxes and fees, could be considered “revenue neutral.”
“If you live in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, you’re going to be paying more. No way to sugar coat that,” McDonnell said, referring to areas where regional taxes will be imposed. “If you’re in another region of the state, and you don’t drive a hybrid, you don’t drive a diesel truck, in your first year, you’re going to have about a revenue-neutral tax reform.”
A cautious politician, the term-limited governor has stepped out in his final year to back a compromise that could burnish his legacy with everyone but his conservative base. Just last year, McDonnell was in the mix as a GOP vice presidential contender. Now, as he is said to mull a presidential run in 2016 or perhaps a bid for U.S. Senate, observers say he will either have to repair his relationship with the right or repackage himself as a pragmatic centrist — wrestling with the same identity crisis that afflicts the Republican Party as a whole.
McDonnell has tried to frame the transportation package as the ideal bipartisan compromise, the perfect counterpoint to all that’s wrong with Washington. Yet he’s also casting the deal in the most conservative light: playing down the tax bite, stressing its advantages for business, job growth and the state’s bond rating, and invoking President Ronald Reagan’s 30-year-old gas tax increase.
“He’s showing some courage. He’s just not owning it in a way a [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie would own it,” Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee said.
“Once the dust settles on this and Bob McDonnell begins the next leg of his political journey, that’s the struggle he will have to deal with: Is he this fiscally balanced moderate compromiser? Or is he the fiscally, socially conservative hero that he still wants a lot of people to see him as?” Elleithee said. “He kind of wants people to see him as all of the above, but with this Republican Party, I’m not sure that it’s possible.”