The Chattering Class complains that we don’t see political courage these days. The No Labels crowd decries the absence of political heterodoxy. So when real moxie comes not once but twice in a matter of months from the same politician, we should take notice.
In his last year as governor in a term-limited state, Republican Bob McDonnell could have coasted. He might have gone hard to his right, trying to burnish conservative credentials for a future run for national office. Instead he decided to do important things, even if there was no political payoff or even a political cost.
He stepped up to address Virginia’s decades’-old transportation problem and agreed to a new revenue stream from a raise in the sales tax. The group of conservatives who say no tax, anywhere, anytime, for any reason in any administration (no matter how frugal) was and remains incensed. But he did something critical to the Commonwealth’s growth and prosperity; his approval ratings among the people who count (Virginians) remains high.
Then this week he took a monumental step for a state that barred convicted felons from ever recovering their voting rights. Now non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences can return to the electorate. The Post Editorial Board writes:
In devising the new policy, the governor resorted to an ingenious and lawyerly mechanism to scrap the two-year wait. By fiat, starting July 15, he is automatically restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons (if the state can find them), provided that they have served their sentences, paid all fines and court costs and face no pending felony charges. However, to satisfy the constitutional requirement for gubernatorial review, he says the restorations will take place “on an individualized basis.”
The new policy was rightly lauded by the NAACP and other civil rights groups. In explaining it, the governor’s logic was potent and impeccable. Ex-offenders, he said, deserve “a second chance, because we are a state and a nation of people who believe in redemption and restoration.”
In some ways, both of the candidates seeking to succeed McDonnell are running to continue his popular legacy. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says he’s the fiscal conservative who will carry on. Terry McAuliffe says Cuccinelli, unlike McDonnell, is an extremist who tried to undermine McDonnell’s signature achievement, a transportation bill. Cuccinelli retorts that McAuliffe is a liberal carpetbagger who is in the thrall of liberal interest groups. And so it goes.
But they miss the point. McDonnell’s legacy is not merely center-right compromise. Rather, it is one of bold strokes, a willingness to defy national gainsayers. He has been someone who worries less about party orthodoxy than the expansion of prosperity and opportunity in his state.
I’m less interested (as a Virginia voter) in which candidate is going to promise to imitate McDonnell and his two centrist Democratic predecessors than I am in finding someone who sees a bigger, more dynamic future for the state in which neither small-minded bias nor government meddling foreclose growth, thriving communities and equal opportunity for all. That is turning out to be McDonnell’s real legacy. He has shown himself to be conservative in the best sense —conserving what is precious and relying on free people to create a better place to live. He did it being courteous and knowing when to say no and when to strike a deal.
Does Cuccinelli or McAuliffe exhibit these qualities? I haven’t seen it. Let’s hope one of them surprises us with previously untapped character and courage.
As for McDonnell, maybe it is not in spite of his ideological heresies but because of them that he should remain active in the conservative movement. He could teach his fellow Republicans a thing or two.