Bob McDonnell's conservative conundrum

Campaign 2012

WORLD Virginia will be reporting over the next few days on a number of bills coming out of the state's new GOP-controlled General Assembly that either are or will be heading soon to the desk of Gov. Bob McDonnell. Those bills reflect a pent-up demand for conservative measures that, until last fall's election, had been consistently stymied by a Democratic Senate and moderate Republicans.

Some media contend that this will force McDonnell into making public choices he didn't want to make in order to preserve his viability as a potential Republican vice-presidential candidate. That is, should he appease the base by signing some red meat bills into law or should he try to maintain his reputation as someone conservative in principle but moderate and bipartisan in practice?

This is a false choice, and for two reasons.

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First, most of the bills should have broad, mainstream support, provided the GOP can explain and defend them properly despite mischaracterizations of the legislation in the media.

The Associated Press, for example, describes the bills coming to McDonnell as ones that "would radically curb abortion availability, bar same-sex couples from adopting children, require photo identification of voters, and force drug tests of welfare recipients."

To a moderate or liberal, that sounds pretty grim, right? But the bill that could "radically cut abortion availability," the "personhood" legislation, went into a House committee last November and still hasn't emerged.

Similarly, another bill WORLD Virginia will cover soon would require women seeking an abortion to receive an ultrasound fetal examination and have the opportunity to see the results. Would it decrease the number of abortions? Quite probably, but it would do it in a genuinely and classically "liberal" way-by ensuring that women making one of the most crucial decisions of their lives are not denied highly relevant information by organizations that stand to gain by keeping them uninformed.

As well, the bill that would "bar same-sex couples from adopting" does nothing of the sort. What it does do is protect the religious liberty of faith-based adoption agencies that contract with the state by allowing them to decline to place children with homosexual couples if it violates their religious principles. Same-sex couples wishing to adopt can still apply with one of the many agencies that have no objection.

In short, conservative Republicans need to ensure that solid, reasonable, and compelling cases for their conservative bills reach the public. In so doing, they bolster their own credibility and long-term prospects, and give McDonnell room to sign the bills without alienating reasonable moderates.

Second, speaking of viability, consider the recent history of Republican presidential candidates. Those who campaigned as conservatives and offered a believable record to back it up won. That would include Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Those who ran away from their conservative base in the general election-namely George H.W. Bush (once the Reagan halo wore off), Bob Dole, and John McCain-lost.

Those aren't the only factors in those elections, obviously, but the point is that a truly conservative record on social and economic policy isn't the barrier to winning that liberals like to assert that it is.

Further, McDonnell has endorsed Mitt Romney, whose problem right now is not that he's perceived as too conservative. If McDonnell now openly betrays those who agreed with him that economic issues should be primary but hoped for some progress on social issues, he will torpedo his reputation among Virginia's conservative powerbrokers and disqualify himself as someone who might shore up support for Romney among GOP conservatives in the state.

Imagine if McDonnell did veto the ultrasound bill, for example, and then became Romney's running mate. That ticket would have a hard time convincing those he's just abandoned to man the phone banks and plant those Romney/McDonnell yard signs. The GOP might as well hand to President Obama a swing state on a platter. Here, they'd have to say, we didn't want Virginia, anyway.

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.


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