Your Turn, Bob

On the eve of Bob McDonnell’s inauguration, what Tim Kaine might say to the governor-elect about the potholes and hazards of being a rising political star

By: Drew Lindsay

Dear Bob,

I hope you have nice weather for your inauguration. It rained on mine. Hard.

Standing in the cold for two hours without an overcoat didn’t dampen the warm glow of my election victory. I won by doing what even Mr. Popular, Mark Warner, couldn’t do—turn the Washington exurbs from red to blue. Mark never much liked me, so the strong returns in Loudoun and Prince William were a satisfying thumb-of-the-nose to him.

I’m flattered that you copied my campaign strategy to reclaim those soccer moms and dads. You promised Purcellville and Occoquan help on jobs. You sold yourself as Mr. Home Depot—a fix for everything at low, low costs!—and hammered the same kitchen-table themes that I did. Now you’re a symbol of hope for your party, a man with a bright future.

My future looks pretty bleak. I’ll leave office with approval ratings that rival the lows posted by Jim Gilmore. That smart-aleck blogger at Not Larry Sabato says I’m the Democratic version of Gilmore—a star Virginia governor who took the job as national party chief late in his term, won the wrath of locals, and then vanished into political oblivion.

You should know that using the Virginia governorship as a springboard to national power isn’t easy. Virginia may be known as “the mother of Presidents,” but the state’s last governor to sit in the White House was John Tyler—165 years ago. And he got the job only because he was Veep when William Henry Harrison died (from pneumonia that followed his cold, wet Inauguration Day when he refused an overcoat. Imagine that!).

Virginia is a tough place for a governor to make change happen. So tough that the income-tax rate structure dates to 1948, for goodness’ sake! You’ve got only four years in office, and the legislature controls key levers of power. Academics say the office of Virginia governor is among the weakest in the country.

Because we’re a state with a biennial budget, your job at first will be doing patchwork on my last spending plan. I’ve plucked the low-hanging fruit in terms of cuts, so you’ll have to slash deep and wide to deal with the billion-dollar shortfalls ahead. By the time the legislature passes a budget that you put together, your term will be more than half over.

Like me, and like Mark before me, you promised to fix Northern Virginia’s transportation nightmare. Good luck. Mark’s still got the bruises from 2002, when voters in Northern Virginia (his home base!) rejected his proposed sales-tax hike to pay for roads. And I got rolled by the downstaters on my plan, losing one vote in the Senate 0–98.

Your transportation plan was more detailed than Creigh Deeds’s, but I’d call it “faith-based”—you’re putting a lot of faith in the idea that the economy will return overnight to warp speed. Still, I noticed you declined a “no new taxes” pledge in the campaign, which suggests you studied Mark’s term. Faced with a crisis, Mark pushed through a bipartisan tax increase. That broke his campaign promise not to raise taxes, but when the state roared back to health, no one cared.

Imagine if you did the same. By the 2012 GOP convention, you’ll have slashed spending in big ways that will impress conservatives. At the same time, you’ll have put together a major plan to solve a transportation mess that’s befuddled everyone for a quarter century. Whoever the Republicans put forward against Barack would be crazy not to give you, the “can do” governor, the number-two slot on the ticket. And when the call comes, let me know. I can tell you what not to say.

Bottom line: You’ve got a chance to leave office primed for the big time. Don’t blow it. And even if you ignore my political advice, remember this: If it’s cold on Inauguration Day, wear a coat.

Best,

Tim

This article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here