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McDonnell Says Thesis Is Old News. Is It?

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Robert F. McDonnell, Republican candidate for Virginia governor, wanted to talk about jobs, transportation, education -- anything except The Thesis. To his chagrin, his 1989 right-wing cultural credo was the subject of two of the five questions at a Rotary Club breakfast Wednesday in a Baptist church basement in Fredericksburg.

McDonnell tried to dismiss it as old news, with an indirect swipe at his Democratic opponent, who has been linking him to former president George W. Bush.

"This election is not going to be about past presidents or past governors or 20-year-old term papers or, you know, what I did in high school. This election is going to be about who's got the best ideas for moving this economy forward," McDonnell said.

That response was misleading, to put it mildly. The subject wasn't a high school term paper written by a teenager the week before prom. It was a thesis for a combined master's and law degree. When he wrote it, McDonnell was a 34-year-old business executive and former Army officer, married with two children (he now has five), intent on launching a political career to offer what his school, Regent University, proclaims in its motto as "Christian leadership to change the world."

Unhappily for McDonnell, except for a hard-core minority, voters have made clear in recent elections that they don't want the kind of intolerant policies that he espoused then. They believe that women, including mothers, are welcome in the workplace. They believe that government should let people decide for themselves whether to use contraception. Even Republican grass-roots activists said they support equal rights for gays, except when it comes to marriage.

Disapproval of homosexuality "doesn't mean you have to outcast those people," Charlotte Heagney of Falmouth, a Republican campaign volunteer, said after a meeting with McDonnell at the Fredericksburg party headquarters Tuesday afternoon. The candidate wrote in his thesis that the government should "restrain, punish and deter" homosexuality.

The public shift toward accepting working women and gays explains why McDonnell is trying so hard to make the controversy go away. But it's raised two critical questions: Has McDonnell really changed his views? And is the Republican Party ready to publicly give up pushing religious-right social issues to regain power in Virginia and nationally?

The first question will probably be contested through Election Day. Although McDonnell has resisted going into detail about how his views have evolved, he has said that he believes government should not discriminate against gays or ban contraceptives and that he supports women in the workplace. He stresses that he wanted to be judged by his 18-year record in the General Assembly and as attorney general.

It's clear from the thesis, which included a 15-point program for the Republican Party, that he entered politics largely to promote religious social conservatism. Virginians are right to ask whether he has shed his original positions or is merely concealing them to appeal to voters.

"I've known Bob well enough to know that he's moderated, because of ambition. That's why he's moved," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and a longtime observer of McDonnell's career. To assuage vital swing voters, Sabato said, McDonnell "has to make very clear pledges that he's not going to go out and push any of these [social] issues," even though the Republican right wing will "scream and yell" in protest.

Some voters are skeptical. McDonnell's thesis showed that "if you're not a married, white Anglo-Saxon . . . family, you don't have a place in society, in his view," said Mike King, 56, a travel agency owner and Rotary Club member.

Regarding the future of the party as a whole, McDonnell's campaign was supposed to be a model for a new Republican strategy of downplaying social issues to focus on lowering taxes, cutting regulation and reducing government waste. The approach was off to a smashing start. Before my colleague Amy Gardner revealed the thesis in a story Sunday, McDonnell was way ahead of state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) in most polls, including one by The Washington Post last month that had him ahead by 7 percentage points.

Now McDonnell is on the defensive. He spent 90 minutes answering questions about the thesis in an unusual news conference call Monday, followed by an additional round on television Tuesday. Ominously for him, Republican hard-liners are pressing him to stick to his past positions.

Grass-roots Republicans said they trusted that McDonnell's views had evolved along with much of the rest of the party.

"Things have moved on. We believe Bob is very responsive to women," Sunny Reneau, 38, a freelance paralegal with four children, said during a break from working the phone bank at the Stafford GOP headquarters.

Billy Hoovler, 63, a Republican member of the Rotary, called the thesis a nonissue. "There's no way those ideas could ever get into any Virginia politics" today, because such radical positions are "passé," he said.

Albeit outmoded, those ideas led McDonnell into his political career. For many voters, the question will be whether to run a risk that his ambition still includes being a conservative culture warrior.

Excuses, Excuses

After my column Sunday about the nation's forsaken pledge to protect Iranian exiles at a camp in Iraq, the State Department said U.S. obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention expired Dec. 31 when the Baghdad government assumed sovereignty over the country.

The Convention also says the United States must "take effective measures to correct the situation" if the new protective power (Iraq, in this case) "fails to carry out" the protective provisions. Given that Iraqi security forces have killed 12 exiles and wounded hundreds more, I'd say "effective measures" by the United States are appropriate.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). E-mail me at robertmccartney@washpost.com.

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