Kimberly A. Strassel's column in the Wall Street Journal, Obama's Swing-State Blues, focusing on the gubernatorial race in Virginia, is both thoughtful and accurate in detailing the importance and dynamics of the race between Republican Robert F. McDonnell and Democrat Creigh Deeds. A win for the Republican in this state that Obama carried would signal that swing states are swinging back to the Republicans. This would both help Republicans with recruiting and fundraising for the mid-term elections and put pressure on "blue-dog" Democrats to vote in line with their districts, not the Democratic leadership.
One point Strassel makes may not, however, be the only lesson that could be drawn from the facts she presents:
The unearthing of a thesis Mr. McDonnell wrote 20 years ago, critical of feminism and homosexuality, changed the dynamic. The Deeds campaign unleashed ads calling Mr. McDonnell "Backwards Bob" and this time the accusation gained traction. Mr. Deeds has narrowed Mr. McDonnell's lead to five points. Mr. McDonnell has insisted it was long ago and his views have changed. Yet the majority of those who switched candidates were independent women. The moral for the GOP? Cultural controversy does not sell.
Perhaps. But there are other considerations. One possibility is that what doesn't sell is any hint of hypocrisy. And therefore it is important to be honest about the evolution of one's views. Within the Republican Party, how many conservatives could not shake their doubts about Mitt Romney in the last election? To many it seemed obvious that he either tilted his views to win election in Massachusetts or was tilting them to cater to a more conservative base in the Republican primaries. In either case, he didn't come across as a principled man.
It seems that if you don't defend a position, your opponent gets to define the position. As Strassel points out, McDonnell did not attempt in any way to justify, explain or defend the arguments he made in his thesis. He just ran away from the points. With the Deeds campaign attacking the ideas in the thesis as "backwards" and the McDonnell campaign refusing to defend the thesis, the vast majority of voters, not familiar with the details of the matter, are understandably left with the take-away that years ago McDonnell wrote a paper representing some really bad, indeed indefensible, ideas.
But there are plenty of people who agree, or could be persuaded to agree, with many of McDonnell's earlier ideas. In fact, there is a great deal of respectable legal opinion agreeing with McDonnell's critique of the Supreme Court's expansive "right to privacy" decisions going back to Griswold v. Connecticut. And lots of people favor a tax system designed to strengthen families; many working women would love the opportunity to stay home with their children if public policy could make that more feasible. Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona have an option for covenant marriage and the Republic still stands.
Doubtless McDonnell's opinions surely have changed in the past two decades, but had he elected to defend the positions he still holds and explain how his thinking had evolved on others, he would have both won support as an honest man and laid out a case for many culturally conservative views that would have persuaded a portion of the voting population as to the merits of his positions.
McDonnell is an experienced politician, and he has access to politically astute advisers so, in the short term, Strassel may be right. Cultural controversy may not sell well. There are complex ideas at stake, and there may not be enough time before the election to fully explain such ideas. So denying their relevance and talking about jobs may well be the best strategy to win this election.
There are, however, broader risks here and it may not be the best strategy to bring about a Republican renaissance. Conservatives, almost by definition, believe that what happens in the home is more important than what happens in the domestic policy arena. In fact, domestic policy is important to no small extent because of the impact such public policy has on the family. One doesn't have to endorse any specific proposal made in McDonnell's long-ago thesis to recognize that at 34 years old, he was wrestling with the right questions. His thesis was titled, "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of The Decade." Who wants to stand up and say he was wrong, except to say it is the compelling domestic issue of every decade?
Discussion of how public policy can and should be used to encourage the kind of society congenial to democracy, increased prosperity, and civil behavior is inevitably going to involve thinking about the kind of society we want to have and preferring some outcomes over others. George Will used to refer to this line of thought as statecraft as soulcraft.
If conservatives running for office are unwilling to stand up for these ideas then, domestically, at least, they are left running on purely prudential economic grounds. That may work this year, but should conservatives require a recession to facilitate electoral victories?