By Kathy Kemper – 01/19/10 06:38 PM ET
This past Saturday, Robert “Bob” McDonnell topped off a crackerjack campaign by becoming the Commonwealth of Virginia’s 71st governor. He is carrying with him the hopes of Virginians ready for pragmatic solutions to their state’s problems, but also the aspirations of his party, which is desperate for a comeback this year. In a statement congratulating McDonnell, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said, “Bob McDonnell’s campaign for governor should serve as a shining example for all Republicans looking for success in 2010.” There has even been talk of the new governor cutting his term short to enter national politics and run for president in 2012. While it may be very tempting for McDonnell to craft policy with future ambitions in mind (indeed, he is being touted as the Republicans’ great hope), I would advise the new governor to focus on the difficult business he has at hand. If McDonnell leads his administration like he did his campaign, he will be golden.
Virginia has had solid economic leadership in recent years, but the recession that began in 2007 has taken its toll. The state’s budget has been slashed, and still more spending cuts lie ahead. Unemployment is at 6.6 percent, which is lower than unemployment in the nation as a whole but nearly twice the average Virginia has experienced over the past decade. Economic problems have in turn resulted in the shelving of long-held priorities, including fixing daily gridlock in Northern Virginia.
McDonnell seems to realize what he’s up against. During the campaign, he kept the spotlight off his conservative credentials and ran on a centrist platform, pledging to create jobs, invest in rural Virginia, address the state’s long-festering transportation problems and boost education by shifting funds from school administration to classrooms. When The Washington Post tried to make his master’s thesis a bone of contention, McDonnell handled the attack head-on, with deft tact. Putting his old work in context, he noted, “Virginians will judge me on my 18-year record as a legislator and attorney general and the specific plans I have laid out for our future — not on a decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student during the Reagan era and haven’t thought about in years.” There was no ducking the issue, just acknowledging the facts and putting them in perspective. I like that. It said volumes about his leadership and his campaign.
In the transition period, McDonnell has been attentive to the problems he will have to deal with over the coming years. As governor-elect, he announced temporary salary cuts for himself and future Cabinet secretaries in a symbolic move to rein in budget costs. In the run-up to his inauguration, McDonnell volunteered at a homeless shelter and at a number of food banks. Finally, the inauguration ceremony itself was scaled back to reflect Virginia’s ongoing economic woes. The festivities were estimated to cost $1.5 million, or about half of what was spent on Tim Kaine’s ceremony in 2006.
I applaud these decisions on every level. Showing thrift was the right thing to do. But it also signaled that McDonnell is serious about tackling Virginia’s biggest problem, and his own highest priority: getting the economy back on its feet. That should be the president’s job, too.
A Republican’s return to the governor’s mansion after eight years may be heady wine for the RNC. But I counsel the new governor to stay centered — literally. Virginia’s problems are not going to be solved without bipartisan cooperation and pragmatic approaches. Lead in this manner, Gov. McDonnell, and be a paragon to all elected officials, Republicans and Democrats.