Va.'s McDonnell slow to fulfill campaign pledges

Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney discusses Virginia governor Robert McDonnell's first weeks in office.
By Robert McCartney
Thursday, March 11, 2010

RICHMOND Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell won a landslide victory in November largely because of two broad campaign promises. He was going to deliver key services that Virginians wanted even while shrinking government. And he was ready to lead from Day One, unlike his opponent, whom he mocked for lacking plans for what to do.

I'm sorry, but not surprised, to report that the new governor is 0 for 2 on those pledges as the General Assembly prepares to adjourn after its annual session.

His record suggests that the vision he offered in his campaign -- better roads and schools, but without new taxes -- was never realistic. His cautious leadership style is harder to explain, given the powerful mandate he obtained from the voters.

Even before the legislature arrived here, McDonnell (R) decided to put off the vital question of how to find the billions of dollars needed to repair and improve the state's roads. You'll remember he was quite vocal about the topic during the campaign, boasting about his multi-point plan that everybody could find on his Web site. It turned out it wasn't as easy as he suggested.

There's also no sign of how he's going to pay for another whopper of a promise, to expand colleges and universities by 100,000 degrees over 15 years. He's won approval for proposals to promote job growth and charter schools, but they're modest and mostly amount to window dressing.

My forgiving side says I should cut McDonnell some slack about launching new programs. There's a historic budget crisis, and he's been in office for less than eight weeks. He's also had some distractions: He spent two of his first four Saturdays in the state emergency operations center dealing with snowstorms.

But he's the one who promised to be an activist, take-charge guy. And Virginia governors are limited to one term, so each legislative session is critical.

McDonnell has been particularly wary and passive about how to trim the budget. He surprised Republicans and Democrats alike by refraining until the last minute from giving them specific, public guidance on how to cut spending.

In effect, the governor has deferred to the legislature on how to solve the biggest problem facing the state this year. In pushing his agenda, he seems satisfied to govern by checklist. He makes numerous small proposals and then claims victory when a high percentage of them are approved.

"I have found the most helpful role is being a facilitator" in the budget negotiations between the House and Senate, McDonnell said in an interview. Although he provided private advice from the start, he said, "the budget is truly in their court."

This is all quite a comedown from the drama and promise (at least for the GOP) of McDonnell's election triumph last year. It encouraged talk of a McDonnell candidacy for vice president or even president.

Some observers think McDonnell is playing it safe because he doesn't want to attract criticism that might jeopardize such ambitions. If the legislature takes the lead on cutting the budget, then it gets most of the blame when hospitals are closed or class sizes grow.

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