Virginia Republicans have struggled mightily this legislative session to fulfill the worst possible stereotype of their party: blinkered, provincial, self-aggrandizing, ecclesiastic and dumb. So why do Democrats aim their venom toward their own party? Maybe it's because the Virginia Democratic Party seems so flaccid, uninspired, inert, confused and dumb.
For Virginia Democrats, hope hardly springs eternal, but a trickle dribbled forth last week when Del. Brian Moran (D-Alexandria) got hot after House Republican leader Morgan Griffith accused him of siding with repeat sex offenders "who we know will molest again and again."
It was a grotesque mischaracterization of Moran's vote against a budget amendment for the attorney general's office, and Griffith knew that. But a day without pitching mud at the other side is a day without sunshine for Griffith, and he makes no bones about it. The news was that a Democrat didn't just sit there and take it. Moran vented his anger on the House floor and rebuked Griffith by name, and hallelujah for that.
Anger, when justified, is not a bad thing.
Film director John Ford (admittedly not a subtle artist), when asked whether he made films about things that made him angry, angrily replied, "What the hell else is man to live for?"
Will someone please tell Gov. Mark Warner that? When Republican Speaker Bill Howell suggested to reporters the other day that Warner was, well, a tad irrelevant in the greater legislative scheme of things, Warner dashed down from his third-floor perch in the state Capitol to the basement press room to plead it wasn't so.
He then handed out a list of pending legislation to illustrate his leadership.
That night, during the annual Capitol correspondents' dinner, Republican leaders chuckled at Warner's defensiveness, and columnists, who regularly irritate Warner with what they write, said worse. It's almost as though they -- Republicans and reporters alike, and more than a few frustrated Democrats -- wish Warner would figure out this game, put on his war face and ignite a real competition. That Warner seems disinclined to do so may touch on a problem identified by British academic Bernard Crick, who described a brand of politician who eschews politics.
"He overestimates the power of reason and the coherence of public opinion; he underestimates the force of political passions and the perversity of men in often not seeming to want what is so obviously good for them," wrote Crick.
What gets lost -- and this clearly applies to Warner, who constantly invokes the glories of bipartisan action -- is governance. Warner's apparent desire to rise above it all ushers in, as Crick put it, a "dangerous incapacity for action -- a refusal to use force, even in the defense of political values."
If these were the days of yore in Virginia, when Democrats gripped the tiller and calmly ensured continuity through the decades, Warner's reluctance to rage would be acceptable, perhaps even effective. But those days are gone.
Although it would suit the bright and engaging Warner if reason ruled, that's not the situation now. Plastic fetuses are being mailed out by abortion opponents, guns are being welcomed into restaurants, judges are being dumped out of vindictiveness, and any day now some inspired Republican will discover that the state's standards of learning do not account for creationism.
Worse, the budget emerging from this legislative session is a debacle. It preserves all the flaws of Virginia's obsolete and inequitable tax structure while proposing to make it worse by repealing the estate tax.
Education at all levels will suffer. Public safety and health care provided to the indigent will decline. Instead of new taxes, Virginians will pay new fees. Borrowing and the cost of booze (to boost the sales tax) will increase.
That is the way of things in Virginia these days, and it seems that maybe, just maybe, something here is worth fighting about -- worth a little anger, a little spit. Warner has roused himself in opposition to the estate tax, and the game's afoot. Let the governor dispense with humility and imitate the tiger: Unsheathe the veto pen, draw blood and let his voice, for once, emit passion.