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Bob McDonnell, the Confederacy and the Veepstakes

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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; 11:53 AM

Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's decision to backpedal on a proclamation declaring April Confederate History month in the Commonwealth left Republican observers divided about how much -- if any -- damage he had done to his prospects on the national stage in 2012 and beyond.

The controversy began earlier this week when McDonnell omitted any mention of slavery in a proclamation designed to commemorate the Commonwealth's role in the Civil War and, he said, promote tourism to the state. (The issuing of such a proclamation was begun under Gov. George Allen, a Republican, in 1997 but discontinued during the eight years that Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, held the governor's office.)

Sensing that the firestorm surrounding the proclamation was quickly growing out of control, McDonnell acknowledged Wednesday that not addressing slavery in the document was a "mistake". He also added a paragraph to the proclamation in which he described slavery as an "evil and inhumane practice".

The McDonnell proclamation -- and subsequent apology -- drew national headlines (few of them favorable) and cast the rising star, elected to his post last fall, in a decidedly unfavorable light.

But, does the controversy have any lasting resonance -- particularly in regards to McDonnell's future on a national party ticket?

We spoke with a handful of senior Republican strategists about that question and, while all of them suggested this was a surmountable problem, they disagreed about the seriousness of it overall.

"It's a lasting scar mainly for its combination of stupidity, insensitivity and ignorance about the civil war," said one senior party strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. The source did add, however, that McDonnell "has a lot of time to make amends and put it behind him."

Others were far more sanguine about the impact (or lack thereof). "Sixty days and its ancient history," said one GOP big wig. "Mountain out of a molehill," wrote another party strategist in an email to the Fix.

Our take?

It's easy to stand too close to any one thing as it relates to a politician's national trajectory and determine that it is the single thing that will make or break him.

An example: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's widely panned Republican response speech in 2009. Does anyone really think that speech will have any impact on Jindal's potential as a presidential or vice presidential candidate?

But, matters of race -- particularly with the nation's first African American president in the White House -- are a bigger issue than giving a single bad speech. And, assuming McDonell is in the mix for vice president in 2012, it's a near-certainty that this incident will be part of the equation that the nominee will consider when making his (or her) selection.

"When it comes to [vice presidential] picks, most nominees want to pick someone that won't create controversy," explained one senior GOP strategist, speaking without attribution in order to offer a candid assessment. "When combined with his thesis controversy, he could be caricatured, fairly or not, to the many voters who don't know him during the introductory phase."

The controversy stirred by the McDonnell proclamation amounts to an unforced error by a politician who had been on quite a good streak of late. It's far from determinative in terms of his political future but almost certainly will slow his rapid upward trajectory -- at least in the near term.


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