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McDonnell’s Model: Save the Flash

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Virginia governor-elect Bob McDonnell demonstrates the qualities that got him elected — an unflappable ability to stay on message, an attention to nitty-gritty details (on the budget, on school reform, etc.), a willingness to engage in meaningful bipartisan policy making (on charter schools), and an entirely conservative message. On the economy:

“Virginia’s unemployment rate, 6.6%, is lower than the 10% national average, but it is up sharply from its low of below 3% in 2007. In the worst economy in 80 years,” says Mr. McDonnell, “it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what we ought to be talking about.” He adds: “I do think that talking about the excesses of the federal government is something you are going to hear Republican and Democratic candidates for statewide office talk about for a while because I think you’re going to see a resurgence of discussions of federalism, about the 10th Amendment, about limits on federal power, and federal spending.”

Nor does he plan on jettisoning social issues or changing his political stripes to attract new supporters. (“I am 100% pro-life . . . We were unequivocal about our position on marriage.”) After all, he won by nearly 20 points.

He ran as a policy-wonkish conservative and he appears anxious to govern as one with an eye toward reform, rather than just slashing the size of government. He’s not, at least for now, running for anything else (Virginia limits its governors to one term); so he has the “luxury” of focusing on his job. In that and in his consistent political persona and message, he is an oddity these days. We have gotten used to politicians who run as one thing and govern as another, or those (like incumbent Tim Kaine) who take on other jobs or campaigns rather than attend to their day jobs.

Republicans will be scrambling to duplicate the McDonnell “model” — it is tempting to do so, given his margin of victory. But the real lesson of McDonnell is that the public, battered and bruised by recession, responds to serious campaigns and respects serious people. The key is to find candidates who don’t need to fake competency and who don’t need to reinvent themselves. We’ve had a year of learning that an “historic” and “charismatic” candidate doesn’t necessarily make for an effective office holder and that inviting everyone to project their own hopes and dreams onto a blank canvas may be a recipe for disappointment. If the public is tired and grumpy, maybe a little angry, and looking to once again throw the bums out, it might be attracted in 2010 to those who don’t want to dazzle but rather just want to do their jobs. It’s not an exciting formula, perhaps, but maybe we’ve had enough excitement for awhile.