Commentary Magazine


McDonnell’s Mistake

Conservatives dislike it when politicians on the right are told to be more like Democrats. And they are usually just as suspicious when the political press tells prominent Democrats to be more like certain Republicans. Such is the conservative movement’s relationship with the media that good press is often the wrong press, and that is no less true today of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

Fresh off of getting slammed in the Wall Street Journal and by Red State’s Erick Erickson for his plan to hike sales and transportation taxes in the state and for opening the door to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, the Republican governor is, unsurprisingly, now the recipient of stories extolling his supposed moderation. National Journal nudges President Obama in McDonnell’s direction on the willingness to embrace compromise and stand up to his party’s base. McDonnell right now needs such headlines like he needs a hole in the head, but it’s worth noting why. Erickson hints at it when he writes:

What tells you that Bob McDonnell isn’t really a conservative is that there was never any interest on the part of his administration in finding funding for roads through cuts or privatizing state services. Contrast this with what a real conservative does, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker – when a state commission recommended he raise the gas tax to pay for roads, he said he’d sell off state property and privatize other functions to pay for it rather than raise taxes. McDonnell was never interested in doing that.

The emergence, and success, of a genuine conservative reform movement has deprived Republican politicians of an excuse they used to be able to lean on when attacked from their right flank: political necessity. All throughout the Republican primary process last year, the longest shadow of all the Republicans who chose not to run was cast by then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Daniels was considered serious and electable by election watchers on both sides of the isle. But the most powerful case for Daniels was that he, perhaps more (or at least earlier) than anyone else, had proven that conservatives can govern successfully–as conservatives.

This has always been a knock on the modern conservative movement: the right is accused of going so far in its anti-government zealotry that it couldn’t possibly be trusted to govern. It won’t wield the levers of power responsibly; it’ll just start tossing out all the levers. This was encapsulated perfectly in the GOP primaries. When Rick Perry famously forgot the third federal department he would eliminate, what is often lost in the recollection of that moment is Ron Paul’s response on that debate stage: “You mean five!” What kind of big-government bureaucrat, after all, only wants to get rid of three federal agencies?

Erickson is right to mention Walker’s reforms in Wisconsin, but the real problem for those like McDonnell is that Daniels pushed for a total change in the way state executives approached management and spending. Andrew Ferguson’s profile of Daniels in the Weekly Standard lays out Daniels’s blueprint:

In fact, the governor’s office has publicized a “Citizens’ Checklist” that people can take to their local school boards to see if school officials have made every possible economy. Citizens in Vincennes need to take that list and get answers, he said. The list is filled with questions. Have the administrators “eliminated memberships in professional associations and reduced travel expenses”? Have they “sold, leased, or closed underutilized buildings”? Have they “outsourced transportation and custodial services”?


Regulatory agencies track the speed with which permits and variances are granted. The economic development agency has to compare the hourly wage of each new job brought to the state with the average hourly wage of existing jobs. In the case of the [Bureau of Motor Vehicles], the two most important metrics were wait times and customer satisfaction. Now each receipt is stamped with the time the customer arrives and the time his transaction is completed. Wait times have dropped from over 40 minutes to under 10 minutes. Surveys put customer satisfaction at 97 percent.

“But when you meet your goal,” Kitchell said, sitting at his office conference table, “he just moves the goalpost.” He turned to his computer and scrolled to an email the governor had just sent. That morning a transportation official had emailed with the happy news that bids on a new road construction project were coming in 28 percent below projections. No doubt he expected a hearty attaboy for driving a hard bargain to save the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. Kitchell read me the governor’s reply: “Shoot for 30 percent.”

As Erickson notes, McDonnell didn’t seem nearly interested enough in finding other ways to pay the bill. This attitude toward spending–you better have a good reason behind every single dollar you want to confiscate in taxes–has been embraced in red states and blue state too, by GOP reform-minded governors. In many ways, though the 2012 election may be over, the long shadow of Mitch Daniels hasn’t gone anywhere.

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