Is Glenn Youngkin really going to try to run a whole campaign for governor on transgender students and some faddish educational theory that no one can really define and which may not even be being taught anyway?
It sure looks that way — and that does a disservice both to Virginia voters and, ultimately, Youngkin himself. Republican strategists may think harping on critical race theory and the occasional transgender student is good politics but by making the culture wars the centerpiece of the Republican campaign in Virginia in 2021 they’re selling their standard-bearer short — unless, of course, Youngkin really is a culture warrior, in which case his choice of campaign issues is revealing.
The Washington Post reported this week that Youngkin told supporters in Loudoun County that he couldn’t talk about abortion because if he did “[I] won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.” However, he promised that if he won and had a Republican General Assembly then “we can start going on offense” on abortion. Maybe Youngkin really is a stealth candidate. Or maybe he’s slyly telling conservative voters what they want to hear and has no intention of embroiling Virginia in cultural politics.
The reality is we just don’t know. We’ve never had a serious candidate for governor about whom we knew so little. We’ve had other gubernatorial candidates who had never held office — Linwood Holton in 1969, Mark Warner in 2001, Terry McAuliffe in 2013 — but each of those came with at least some political history. Holton had run for governor once before and been a longtime champion of a rising Republican Party. Warner had run for the U.S. Senate and served on the Commonwealth Transportation Board. McAuliffe had run for governor once before, and been his party’s national chairman. We had a much better sense of them and what they really stood for than we do with Youngkin, who is the blankest of blank slates.
Here’s what we do know about Youngkin: He was for three years co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, the nation’s second-biggest private equity firm. That should tell us a few things: He probably knows finances, right? And he’s probably a competent administrator. Those are assets that he should be leveraging in the campaign. Instead, by coming out of the gate talking about cultural issues Youngkin gets reduced to being a carnival barker. Here’s why we say that: These may be important issues to somebody, but they are not really central to what a governor does. Schools say they’re not teaching critical race theory so if a Governor Youngkin, on day one, bans such nonexistent teaching, what does that really mean? And what would he do for the remaining four years of his governorship? Voters ought to know.
A cautionary point: Democrats might want to be a little more mindful of those issues than they seem to be at the moment. What students are taught is important. After all, we are a state whose textbooks in the ’50s, ’60s and even part of the ’70s taught government-sponsored propaganda and sometimes outright lies about slavery, the Confederacy and the Reconstruction era — pretty much all things racial. That’s one of the reasons we’re having such a hard time today; we have generations of Virginians who have been brainwashed about their state’s true history. The pendulum swings but we might still want to be a little skeptical of educational fads of any type.
Republicans, though, have worked themselves into a corner where they’re denying there’s such a thing as institutional racism. That may assuage those suffering from “white fragility” but is a betrayal of the party’s history. Republicans were the party that ended slavery; in Virginia, they were the party that brought down the segregationist Byrd Machine. Republicans once were the party that fought against institutional racism — by denying now that such a thing exists they are, in effect, denying their own heritage. Yes, Republicans ought to be in favor of a more critical examination of history because through some tumultuous periods they were the social justice party. Why cede that moral authority now?
In any case, these are not the big issues that will shape Virginia over the next four years. We understand that politics is about motivating people and these issues do motivate some. However, we’d just like to see candidates held to a higher standard — and forced to address some serious policy questions that aren’t so easily reduced to bumper sticker slogans. Or, these days, hashtags. And that’s why, by obsessing over cultural issues, Youngkin is forfeiting one of his potential advantages — the ability to claim that he is better prepared than Democrat Terry McAuliffe to build a new economy. Whether that’s true, we don’t know. Maybe Youngkin just knows how to move money around, which is not the same thing. However, he sure has an opportunity to make the case that he’s better prepared than any governor since Warner to deal with the big economic trends confronting the state.
We have large swaths of rural Virginia that have seen their traditional employment base wither or sometimes die. Does Youngkin have any special insight into how to build a new economy in rural Virginia? We know what McAuliffe’s record on that is and have no reason to expect a second term to be any different from his first. Can Youngkin do better? Again, we just don’t know — and we don’t hear Youngkin talking about it, either. Politically, he probably doesn’t need to. Given our current political alignments, Youngkin will win those areas big whether he lays out a 100-point plan or whether he says nothing at all. But as governor, he’ll have to deal with the drag that those regions put on the state, so we’d like to hear some details, if he has any. Does he back a constitutional amendment to end school disparity? We have at least one county (Scott) that says it’s too poor to put up $238,000 to get a state match of $1 million for teacher pay raises. What would he do about that? How would he raise the educational level of the adult workforce in rural Virginia to make it more competitive? Would he put up money for energy research programs at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise? These are practical questions — questions that McAuliffe isn’t addressing either, which gives Youngkin even more opportunity to make his case.
Instead, Youngkin sure has a lot to say about the Loudoun County teacher who wouldn’t call a transgender student by the student’s preferred pronoun. That seems rude but affects one teacher and one student. These other issues affect a whole lot more.