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The Macaca Thesis

What Bob McDonnell Can't Explain Away

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bob McDonnell, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, didn't really mean it when he equated homosexuality with drug abuse and pornography as evils that "the government must restrain, punish, and deter."

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He didn't really mean it when he decried a Supreme Court ruling invalidating a ban on contraception for married couples because it promoted "a view of liberty based on radical individualism."

Or when he urged that "every level of government should statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators," adding, "The cost of sin should fall on the sinner, not the taxpayer."

Or when he described "feminism" as one of the "real enemies of the traditional family" and criticized federal child-care programs because they "subsidize a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family."

Or if he did mean it, he doesn't any longer. When he wrote his thesis on "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family," McDonnell, you see, was a "college student at the time, albeit a little older college student, within an academic environment and completely not restrained by the real policy world."

Albeit? McDonnell, actually, was 34 in 1989. He had already earned a bachelor's and master's degree in business and served in the Army. He was getting a combined law and second master's degree -- while interning at the U.S. House Republican Policy Committee and preparing to run for the Virginia House of Delegates.

In a 90-minute conference call explaining -- or, more precisely, explaining away -- the thesis, McDonnell described himself as "simply doing an academic analysis." In my experience, academic analyses do not generally feature 15-point action plans for a particular political party.

McDonnell's thesis is a 93-page, 170-footnote "macaca" moment -- and, like that moment, self-inflicted. Had McDonnell not mentioned the thesis to Post reporter Amy Gardner -- he misleadingly described it as an essay on "welfare policy" -- it might never have surfaced.

There are so many delicious aspects to the McDonnell uproar:

-- The irony of watching a staunch social conservative complain that hot-button social issues are being deployed against him -- this after years of social conservatives revving up their base with this approach. Now that McDonnell needs votes from the bluest part of the state, it's suddenly foul play that Creigh Deeds, his Democratic opponent, "continues to focus on divisive issues."

-- The irony of watching that-was-then, this-is-now politics flipped on its head. In 2006, after his infamous macaca comment, then-Sen. George Allen attacked his Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, for his offensive 1979 Washingtonian article, "Women Can't Fight." Webb's defense was a variant of the youthful indiscretion excuse. "There's many pieces in this article that if, if I were a . . . more mature individual, I wouldn't have written," Webb explained. At the time he wrote the article, Webb was 33.

-- The irony of watching what-they-do, not-what-they-say politics flipped upside down as well. Just a few weeks ago, Republicans were focused on a single sentence from Justice Sonia Sotomayor about the "wise Latina." Then, it made sense to focus on Sotomayor's sentence, not her copious judicial record. Now, it's unfair to look at McDonnell's writings when his legislative history is open for all to see.

I am prepared to accept that McDonnell's views have evolved in the past 20 years. The shift in public attitudes toward gay rights has been remarkable; it is certainly possible that McDonnell's hostility toward homosexuality has moderated -- somewhat.

Similarly, nothing can change a sexist's mind as effectively as having daughters; McDonnell's experience with watching his daughters earn master's degrees and serve in Iraq no doubt informed his current views about working women.

And, as with Sotomayor, I agree that the better guidepost to how a Gov. McDonnell would operate is examining the performance of Attorney General McDonnell or Del. McDonnell.

On that score, it seems just as likely that McDonnell's supposed restraint stems from pragmatic acceptance of political reality as from a marked change in views. There's every reason to think that McDonnell would govern as conservatively as the current politics of the state would allow. His professions of relative disinterest in social issues are unconvincing.

As for his efforts to dismiss the thesis as the idle musings of a callow youth: Those are simply insulting to the voters of Virginia.

marcusr@washpost.com



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