Mark Shields: Virginia shows the future
Without Virginia, we probably never would have become the United States. It was Virginian leadership and talent that created the nation. Think first of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, and don’t forget Chief Justice John Marshall, Patrick Henry and George Mason.
It’s understandable that state pride can infect Virginians with a sort of terminal nostalgia. They can speak lyrically about Gen. Robert E. Lee or Jefferson as if both men were out on an extended coffee break and expected back shortly. There is an old, but not inaccurate, joke that asks: how many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? The answer: three. One to change the light bulb and two to reminisce about what a great light bulb the old light bulb was.
But in 2017, Virginia is one of only two states (New Jersey being the other) that will elect a new governor. That the Virginia election is held in a year when there is no presidential or congressional elections is a story in itself. In the most recent presidential election, Virginia’s voter turnout was 72 percent of registered voters, whereas in the most recent gubernatorial race, Virginia’s voter turnout was just 43 percent, or 1.73 million fewer voters.
The Virginia political establishment and business community, quite bluntly, prefer the more conservative off-year electorate in a campaign insulated from the national political debate and trends of a presidential election, which attract younger, more untraditional voters and made the difference in Democratic presidential nominees carrying Virginia in the past three elections. Virginia’s June primary date — when colleges are closed, campuses are quiet and public attention is low — was deliberately chosen to discourage large voter turnouts.
Recall Shields’ third rule of campaigns: Politics, with the possible exception of political journalism, is the most imitative American art form. There are today aspiring candidates in Massachusetts running for office and pronouncing “again” so it rhymes with “rain.” Why? Because John F. Kennedy pronounced it that way.
Because Jimmy Carter emerged from nowhere to win the White House while using green buttons and green bumper stickers, there are candidates today using green bumper stickers. Because Ronald Reagan won big while championing big tax cuts at a time when the national debt was barely $1 trillion and unemployment was in double digits, today, when unemployment has dropped to a 10-year low, what do would-be clones embrace, even though the national debt has exploded to $20 trillion? Huge tax cuts, of course.
So what did Virginian candidates learn from the 2016 presidential campaign to copy?
The 2016 Republican presidential winner was an authentic original who charged that George W. Bush, the most recent GOP chief executive, “lied” when he “said there were weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq). There were none, and (he) knew there were none.” He charged that Jeb Bush, a primary opponent, “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.” Columba Bush, who was born in Mexico, became a U.S. citizen in 1979.
Mitt Romney, according to Donald Trump, “choked like a dog.” But the most damning accusation that worked may have been Trump’s unfounded claim that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, an expatriate from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, “was with Lee Harvey Oswald,” the assassin of President Kennedy, shortly “before the shooting. It’s horrible.”
But Virginia in 2017 shows that it worked. The Democratic lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, a mild-mannered pediatric neurologist — in a primary fight with former Rep. Tom Perriello, an underdog who has the backing of seemingly the entire Obama White House alumni and Bernie Sanders — has raised the rhetorical thermostat.
In TV spots and on the stump, Northam calls Trump a “narcissistic maniac” who must be kept out of Virginia. Because President Trump’s job approval rating in the most recent Quinnipiac poll among Virginia Democrats is 3 percent favorable and 95 percent unfavorable, Northam’s primary strategy is probably not risky. But if it works and Northam were to win by making the gubernatorial race a referendum on the “narcissistic maniac,” then once again it would prove, sadly, just how imitative our politics are.