As if a week filled with passage of a gay marriage bill and a flurry over ultrasounds on women seeking abortions hadn’t drawn a bright line between the political bents on either side of the Potomac, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell squared off Friday in a partisan clash of ideas to start the annual District gathering of the nations’ governors.
O’Malley’s (D) vow to sign the gay marriage bill, and McDonnell’s (R) backtracking on a bill that could have required vaginal probes on women in the first weeks of pregnancy, were front and center.
“They say vote for us, things will get better, and then you vote for the Republicans, and they take a hard-right turn, outlawing gay relationships, outlawing women’s rights,” O’Malley said, adding that he would venture to bet that Republicans “over-reach” could allow President Obama to pull another upset win in Virginia in November. Republicans are “throwing all sorts of wedge, social issues out there, when what people really care about are jobs and the economy.”
“All I can say is Governor O’Malley is the only one who has social issues at the top of his agenda,” McDonnell said, referring to the gay marriage bill pushed through the legislature by O’Malley. “I don’t. So I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
The sharp back-and-forth was one of many at the discussion hosted by Politico. McDonnell’s apparent attempt to distance himself from the ultrasound controversy drew an unscripted comment from editor-in-chief and moderator John F. Harris.
“Oh, come on,” Harris said to McDonnell, “you know what he’s talking about.”
“You’re flat wrong,” McDonnell insisted, repeating that the ultrasound bill had not been his initiative to begin with. “Look, 97 percent of the bills we advocated are the ones I put forward on job creation, economic development.”
As the respective heads of their parties’ governors associations, responsible for helping to elect or reelect Democratic and Republican governors, O’Malley and McDonnell have increasingly served as national surrogates for their parties’ positions. They are expected to do so with increasing frequency as the 2012 election season accelerates.
“We should take this show on the road,” O’Malley quipped at one point. “I think we will,” McDonnell replied.
Dubbed the “State Solutions Conference,” there was little constructive debate, as the event’s moniker might have suggested. Most often, O’Malley and McDonnell seemed intent on landing jabs on Obama or the field of GOP presidential hopefuls.
“President Obama is not running against the almighty, he is running against alternatives who want to take us back to the failed policies that brought us record job losses,” O’Malley said. “The [federal] debt that you proclaim to be so adamantly against right now, Governor McDonnell, was racked up for this president by President Bush.”
McDonnell elicited that comment with an earlier knock on O’Malley: “I’m just wondering, when Governor O’Malley runs for president in 2016, is he still going to be blaming President Bush for everything that is wrong with the country?” McDonnell said.
The two then cited flurries of competing studies, state rankings, unemployment and job data in what amounted to an hour-long cross-Potomac one-upmanship fest. As they have before, the two repeatedly sparred over which party deserves credit for the nascent economic recovery.
At one point, Harris focused the discussion tightly on the impact the two governors’ differing philosophies could have on the Washington region.
“Do you worry Virginia will screw it up by not investing in education, not investing in transportation?” Harris asked O’Malley. “The Virginia legislature is so in the grip of anti-tax Republicans, they’ve got an anti-tax governor, that they won’t make those investments and they will starve the golden egg here in Washington?”
“We are well-served by having a strong neighbor in Virginia,” O’Malley replied. “It’s like being in a shopping mall. You want to be, if you have a store, you want to be close to another place that a lot of people are going.
“But,” O’Malley added, “every state needs to do their part to make our country stronger in education, innovation and rebuilding our infrastructure.”
McDonnell responded that he and O’Malley have worked together effectively on transportation and other issues, but disputed the criticism about Virginia government cost-cutting in O’Malley’s remark. The commonwealth, McDonnell said, has run a fiscally sound state while also increasing investments in transportation and schools.
“We have very different views on what’s going on at the federal level and our approach to governance,” said McDonnell, who more than once sought to deflect questions about his interest in running as a 2012 vice presidential nominee.
After more talk about the economy and the two states’ efforts to promote job growth, the back-and-forth eventually came back around to gay marriage and abortion. McDonnell offered a back-handed compliment to O’Malley, saying the two cared about more issues than those that have made headlines this week:
“This is what is somewhat exasperating, and I know Governor O’Malley would probably agree,” McDonnell said. “If you looked at coverage about Maryland, you would think that all they care about is same-sex marriage and tax increases, that’s what I read about. If I was a citizen, I would think that’s all the governor was doing.
“We can’t always decide what the media decides to focus on,” McDonnell said.
After the discussion, McDonnell fielded a half-dozen more questions from reporters about his decision to seek to amend the ultrasound bill to not require invasive procedures.
“It’s not a reversal. I think everyone has mischaracterized that completely,” McDonnell said. “I was listening to information that we gained. ... But look, the reason the pro-choice people are still opposing the bill is because it is still a bill that does an awful lot for people who believe in the culture of life and the sanctity of life and want to advance the ball when it comes to informed consent.”
O’Malley left for a meeting at the White House without taking additional questions from reporters. But he fired off a final shot via Twitter about 20 minutes later:
“As Democratic Governors, we don’t spend a whole lot of time figuring out ways to outlaw contraception. We’re focused on #jobs.”