Bob McDonnell in Va.: From Conservative to Pragmatist

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Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell

Bob McDonnell was on his way to the top. Just months ago, Virginia's Republican governor rode an airtight campaign to the statehouse, solidifying his star power in a party desperately seeking a savior. Wonky and telegenic, he was tapped to give the Republican response to the State of the Union 11 days into his tenure.

Then, without warning, he imploded.

McDonnell stumbled badly — and drew a rebuke from President Obama — when he issued a proclamation that declared April Confederate History Month but omitted any mention of slavery. For a disciplined politician, it was a staggering gaffe. Worse, it rekindled lingering suspicions about the former attorney general, who had lamented th e"detrimental" effects of feminism as a grad student and bashed a Supreme Court decision to legalize contraceptive use by unmarried couples as "illogical."

McDonnell's resurrection has not been flashy. Its mileposts have been a mix of small-bore initiatives, behind-the-scenes coalition building and a intense focus on job-friendly policymaking. McDonnell's makeover from conservative champion to centrist governor has riled some allies and failed to mollify fervent opponents, but earned him plaudits from lawmakers on both sides of Richmond's split legislature. More importantly, it is a sign that a politician who inexplicably kneecapped himself is clawing his way back.

There are plenty of planks in his platform — fiscal austerity, government reform, expanding access to charter schools, energy independence, easing traffic congestion — but they are all subsidiaries of his broader promise of prosperity. "Job creation and economic development are by far our top priorities," he says. "Jobs are what give people a sense of fulfillment and self-reliance."

On a perfect afternoon in May, McDonnell is relaxing on the wooden bench of a 1917 Model T Ford, savoring a guided tour of a boutique winery on the state's eastern shore. Seated next to his wife, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader in Dior sunglasses, he peppers his hosts with questions about climate and cultivation as the Model T wheels around the 300-acre vineyard. "We're in so much debt to China we may have to pay them off in wine," he jokes at a tasting following the tour.

The visit to this region of Rockwellian barns and verdant farmland — his first since being sworn in — was a welcome respite after a breakneck first 100 days in office, in which he managed to bridge a $4 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes. Peers praised McDonnell, 56, for paying personal visits to hash out differences and promote comity. "We try to govern on priorities most people would agree with, regardless of where they live or what their political affiliation might be," he says.

After the Confederate History Month flap, McDonnell spent hours on the phone with both supporters and opponents. He chalks up the error to an oversight born of haste and inexperience. Amid his inner circle, says an aide, a renewed focus was placed on attention to detail. "It was unfortunate," he says during an interview in the cramped cabin of the state plane. "I made a mistake on the omission of slavery. We fixed it right away." And while the spotlight attending his ascension amplified the outcry, several prominent Democrats accepted his apology and came to his defense. "He called me immediately, and he stepped up to the plate and admitted [his mistake]," says former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, the first African American governor in the U.S. "I think he's a decent, caring person. I don't think he has any ill will toward anybody."

Chastened by his public flogging, McDonnell is a man at war with risk. Youthful and smallish, with the parted hair of a prep-school overachiever, the governor is polished and pleasant but not magnetic. He speaks in full paragraphs laced with jargon and has a lawyer's tendency to belabor points he's already scored. On the day he traveled to the eastern shore, McDonnell defended his support for offshore drilling in the wake of the April 20 BP oil spill to several groups of reporters. His soliloquy invariably pointed to an ongoing environmental impact survey, invoked the 1986 Challenger disaster and included a promise to secure "assurances" that such a disaster wouldn't recur. Pivoting like a sprinkler to engage his audience, he concluded each time with an appeal to "the American spirit of progress."

To some Virginia conservatives, McDonnell's move toward the mainstream has been a letdown. But the governor is a canny politician attuned to the anxieties of the electorate, and with voters focused on their wallets, shelving the social-conservative playbook and dialing up the fiscal focus has translated into broader support. "He can speak the secular language of politics very, very well," says Mark Rozell, a professor at George Mason University. "He's working effectively to gain mainstream appeal and frame himself as someone uninterested in narrow social issues."

It hasn't been a seamless transition. "It can't just be jobs, jobs, jobs, and it won't be drill, baby, drill now," says Patrick McSweeney, a former state GOP chair who calls McDonnell capable but disappointing. For staunch Republicans, McDonnell's successor as attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has highlighted the gap between the governor they got and the fiery standard-bearer they wanted. A global-warming skeptic, Cuccinelli led the charge as Virginia became the first state to prohibit health-care reform's individual mandate (a bill McDonnell signed), pressed public colleges to strike policies protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination (which the governor barred with a subsequent directive outlawing such discrimination), and flirted with changing the state seal, which depicts a Roman goddess with a bare breast. But his polarizing style has an upside for McDonnell. "[Cuccinelli] makes a very, very conservative guy look very reasonable and moderate," says Rozell. "And he's not moderate."

Nor does he claim to be. But in the worst recession in 80 years, he defends the need to reverse field and adjust to what's important. "Somebody's going to say you waffled, or you flip-flopped," he says. Only in politics, after all, is consistency for its own sake a point of pride.