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Opinion Glenn Youngkin cares about sound bites more than solutions

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin sporting a cowboy hat gestures as he speaks to the crowd during an inaugural celebration on Jan. 15 in Richmond. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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The political scene never lacks for new stars. Far less common is a new star who is actually saying anything new. In his inaugural address Saturday, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) complained that in today’s politics “sound bites have replaced solutions — taking precedence over good faith problem-solving.” But in his first interview since taking office, Youngkin showed he won’t be changing that trend.

Early in the sit-down with “Fox News Sunday,” Youngkin discussed his first executive order: “ending the use of divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, in public education.” Host John Roberts asked the new governor to reply to critics pointing out that “critical race theory is not being taught in schools and that this was merely a trumped-up phony culture war.”

“There’s not a course called critical race theory,” Youngkin admitted. But, he argued, “the principles of critical race theory … exist in Virginia schools today.” Youngkin described those principles as “the fundamental building blocks of actually accusing one group of being oppressors and another of being oppressed, of actually burdening children today for sins of the past, for teaching our children to judge one another based on the color of their skin.”

Those principles may describe a theory, but not critical race theory — a law-focused set of ideas, taught mostly at college and post-college levels, which argues that racism is endemic in U.S. institutions and that even colorblind laws can reproduce racial inequalities. If Youngkin had focused his criticisms on the small share of materials produced for equity in Virginia schools that have attracted criticism from both sides of the aisle, that would show true interest in “good-faith problem solving” rather than a sound bite. Clearly, that’s not his goal.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) delivered his first address to the Joint General Assembly in Richmond at Virginia’s State Capitol on Jan. 17. (Video: The Washington Post)

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The same superficiality was evident when Youngkin explained his second executive order, “allowing parents to make decisions on whether their child wears a mask in school.” When Roberts asked whether that would conflict with a Virginia law that schools “closely” comply with CDC guidance, Youngkin replied, “We said all along that we were going to stand up for parents because let’s just be clear, what’s happened over the last few years is that bureaucrats and politicians have absolutely stopped listening to parents.”

Were Youngkin interested in substance, he could have pointed to analyses suggesting that the benefits of masking children are uncertain. He could have cited the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organization to justify lifting mask mandates for primary school-age students. But all Fox News viewers got were buzzwords.

Finally, Roberts asked Youngkin whether he would order schools to stay open, as some have called for. “There’s legislation moving through our General Assembly that in fact says absolutely that,” Youngkin replied, “that schools must be open five days a week, that, in fact, virtual learning is a tool of last resort, and right now, we need to get our kids back in school.”

Again, this may sound nice to Youngkin’s base, but whether students can be in school is almost a moot question. Virginia schools haven’t closed for political reasons, but because of too much snow and/or too few staffers. A substantive policy response would contend with those very real problems. There’s a reason that these debates over school closings didn’t flare up until the omicron variant hit, and in many cases left schools no choice but to temporarily return to remote learning. Pretending that virtual learning isn’t already a last resort is simply misleading.

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But the Fox News interview, the speech and his executive orders all suggest that Youngkin cares far more for sound bites than solutions. Instead of recognizing policy nuances in “good faith,” he repeats caricatures and talking points spread in right-wing outlets. And the policies he has highlighted since taking office are warmed-over GOP orthodoxy — tax cuts, deregulation, more tax cuts, increased funding for law enforcement and still more tax cuts.

“I see a path forward,” Youngkin proclaimed Saturday, “to a new and better day.” It’s hard to see him navigating that path, though, while offering nothing but the same old tripe.