- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Bob McDonnell’s safest choice to address controversial language in a decades-old thesis was to repudiate the whole thing. That’s the reality of today’s conformist environment in which political correctness trumps real debate on cultural issues. Few people will buy the Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate’s pragmatic position, but it’s in step with the etiquette of modern campaigns.

Mr. McDonnell pretends to disavow his words, the press pretends to believe him, the public pretends not to notice the humbug, and then we all get to move on. The truth is something different. When Mr. McDonnell sat down to write his paper at age 34, he knew exactly how controversial his words could be and what would happen if they became public, noting that “such thinking may be attacked for lacking political realism in a changing world ….” No kidding.

Mr. McDonnell should be judged by a lifetime of actions, and in this there can be no doubt that he adapted to “a changing world.” The man who formerly espoused traditionalist views about the role of women raised a daughter who served in the Iraq war and hired working mothers to run his campaign and toil in his offices. The candidate is in a tough spot. If he defends old-fashioned social values, he will get pilloried by the press; if he tries to moderate his positions too much, he risks offending Virginia’s conservative Republican base.

A thorough reading of Mr. McDonnell’s writing reveals a more nuanced thinker than press accounts allow. Radio, television and print media have pounced on his now famous argument, “Every level of government should statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.” Only those who take the time to read the next paragraph — conveniently excluded from every article on the controversy so far — find Mr. McDonnell’s doubts about legislating those views. “Republicans have been wise not to advocate a comprehensive national family policy, as that would reduce to compulsion that which is essentially voluntary,” he wrote.

Mr. McDonnell’s thesis, penned 20 years ago, is packed with such extremist moderation. For example, he suggests “tax incentives for businesses that allow lengthy position-protected [parental] leaves.” That’s hardly the notion of a wild-eyed radical.

The same goes for this reflection: “The Republican Party must find a way to ‘lead while not necessarily legislating,’ realizing that guarantees of family stability may be outside the scope of the government’s purview.” Or try this shocking admission: “While political compromise can be a concession of moral high ground, it is predominantly a realistic approach to policymaking.”

Now cover the children’s ears because Mr. McDonnell also argued that “it is highly doubtful that the secular school environment is the proper forum” for federally mandated character education. In Mr. McDonnell’s America — at least according to his views circa 1989 — such a values-based program “belongs in the church.”

Instead of the extremist found on front pages and in Democratic Party press releases, Mr. McDonnell’s thesis reveals a man of faith struggling to reconcile belief in a limited government with the need to protect the family from a corrosive culture. His intellectual journey is based on a realistic understanding that conservatism is in trouble when it starts to see government as the answer, because that is playing on liberal turf. Thinking through that conflict shouldn’t be cause for controversy. It should be a qualification for office.

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