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Va. Gov. McDonnell reaches out to Democrats but leaves much unsaid

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, January 17, 2010; C01

RICHMOND

If Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell can deliver a four-year administration worthy of the pragmatic spirit and inclusive tone of his inaugural address Saturday, he could move the Republican Party in the state toward the moderate center and prove the GOP's beloved thesis that small government can deliver practical results.

He was pretty fuzzy on some key issues, though. He didn't say clearly how he's going to deal with the pain of sharp spending cuts that he needs to make in coming weeks, or how and when he's going to launch the transportation reforms that were a centerpiece of his campaign.

Also, McDonnell's generally bipartisan approach was undermined when he displayed sympathy for the conservative "Tea Party" agenda of resisting the federal government on behalf of state's rights. These warning signs raise questions about whether it's realistic to expect that McDonnell's proclaimed "Commonwealth of Opportunity" will meet its goals.

McDonnell, who took the gubernatorial oath on a gloriously sunny and mild day in front of the stately Capitol building, laid out a vision for government that would lead Virginia forward by shrinking and becoming less burdensome to the public.

Lower taxes and less regulation will spur job growth, he said. New charter schools will help build a workforce for the future. The private sector can make Virginia the "Energy Capital of the East Coast" by producing more natural gas, coal and nuclear power.

"Without reform, the continued growth of government threatens our very prosperity," he warned, adding that his policies are "focused on addressing the real problems our people face and delivering results."

One of McDonnell's senior political advisers predicted that he would combine the best attributes of two of his three predecessors.

"As his campaign suggested, you can expect him to be something of a mixture of a policy reformer like [Republican] George Allen, combined with the bipartisan, consensus-building style of [Democrat] Mark Warner," said Frank B. Atkinson, a partner at the McGuireWoods law firm in Richmond.

In both rhetoric and theatrics, McDonnell avoided pushing conservative social issues that have been divisive in the past.

The speech included no reference to abortion or same-sex marriage. Despite having warned of the dangers of working women in his 1989 master's thesis, he was sworn in by a female Supreme Court justice. He made his original political mentor, the controversial televangelist Pat Robertson, sit with hoi polloi rather than on the portico with the other A-list dignitaries.

People in the audience welcomed the approach. "I was really encouraged by Bob's speech, in his topic of bringing people together instead of separating each other by so many issues," said Renee Gardner, a retired community college administrative employee from Chesapeake.

Rajeev Kumar of McLean, director of an environmental and energy consulting firm, praised the speech for noting that one of 10 Virginians was born outside of the United States. "He sounds like a Democrat," said Kumar, who was born in India.

Much was left unsaid, though. Although this was the "vision" speech, with wonky policy details coming Monday in the State of the Commonwealth, McDonnell did little to prepare Virginians for billions in spending cuts he must make in the current legislative session. The reductions seem likely to threaten schools, one of the areas where he emphasized the state needs to invest.

Also, after boasting throughout his campaign of his multi-point plan to fix the state's roads, McDonnell devoted only two vague sentences to transportation.

Jay Bhandari of Vienna, president of the Association of United Hindu and Jain Temples, was impressed by the governor's "willingness to change the scenery" but curious about how he would trim spending.

"It's difficult. He has to make sure that he doesn't cut important expenditures," Bhandari said. He predicted that McDonnell would have to raise taxes to pay for transportation despite promises not to do so. "There is no other choice," Bhandari said.

For me, a worrisome passage in the speech was the nod he made to goals of the anti-government Tea Party activists.

"No federal mandate nor program . . . should ever undermine the central principle of federalism," he said. "The Founders recognized that government closest to the people governs best."

That might sound pretty bland, but the crowd knew what he meant and applauded. State Republican legislators are pushing bills to fight the federal government over health care, gun control or business regulation.

If McDonnell can simultaneously restrain and improve state government, then we all must applaud. There's a risk, though, that opponents should have been less worried about his 20-year-old views on working mothers and more about his passion for state's rights.

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