Bob McDonnell, Culture Warrior

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

ON MORE THAN one occasion, Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has offered a soporific description of his graduate school dissertation as a "thesis on welfare policy." This is false.

In fact, Mr. McDonnell's study, written in 1989 at age 34 in support of his master's degree in public policy and degree in law, is a full-throated attack on liberals, modernity, the Great Society and inheritance taxes, among other supposed ills, which he linked to and blamed for homosexuality, declining morality and the degradation of the traditional family, along with the proliferation of pornography, out-of-wedlock sex, day care, birth control, pregnant teenagers, divorce, single mothers, working women and feminists.

The thesis is a wistful ode to a bygone 1950s America, when, Mr. McDonnell noted, 70 percent of American families were led by working fathers and homemaker mothers, and "every state in the union made sexual intercourse between unmarried persons a crime." Sounding at times like an Old Testament prophet, Mr. McDonnell wrote that government must discriminate in favor of married couples and against "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators," for "[t]he cost of sin should fall on the sinner not the taxpayer."

A deeply researched, passionately written manifesto, the thesis posits a detailed Republican strategy to roll back the evils that Mr. McDonnell saw as afflicting American society generally and the family in particular. On the eve of his political career, Mr. McDonnell was a committed and convinced culture warrior of the right.

Mindful of Virginia's middle-of-the-road electorate, Mr. McDonnell has done his best since running for attorney general in 2005, and especially in the current campaign, to rebrand himself as a moderate willing to work with Democrats. He has cooled his rhetoric, criticized the Bush administration and bristled at questions about his decision to attend graduate school at what was then known as CBN University, the school founded by Pat Robertson (a leading donor to Mr. McDonnell) and named for his Christian Broadcasting Network. When The Post's Amy Gardner obtained his thesis recently and questioned him about it, he dismissed the paper as "an academic exercise."

More substantively, Mr. McDonnell said his thinking has evolved, citing, among other examples, his support for child day care in a 1995 welfare-reform bill. He said that government should not discriminate against homosexuals (though he backed Virginia's constitutional amendment effectively banning same-sex marriage) or prohibit contraceptives (though as a lawmaker he voted often to oppose government-sponsored access to and information about birth control). And he offered his own working wife and daughters, as well as the women he has hired as a candidate and in office, as evidence of his shift on women in the workforce.

Nonetheless, in his 14 years in the state's General Assembly, Mr. McDonnell did aggressively pursue a socially conservative agenda largely in line with his thesis. As governor he could do the same, although he would be constrained by a legislature at least partly controlled by Democrats. He could not ban abortion and contraception, but he could help restrict access. The Bob McDonnell who wrote that thesis would make a divisive, disruptive and partisan governor -- a sharp departure from the tradition of generally pragmatic executives who have helped make Virginia one of the better-managed states in the union. Virginians deserve specific answers about where the thinking of his early middle age has shifted, and where it remains consistent.

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