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Wednesday, March 20, 2013
When Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced last week that he wouldn’t run for governor as an independent candidate, the lifelong Republican conceded one of the reasons was his desire to keep his political identity.
Longtime friends, he said in an emailed statement, “encouraged me to not give up on the Republican Party and continue working to get our party back on a more mainstream course.”
Given recent events, that could be his next full-time job. Bolling, who’s wrapping up his second term in statewide office and facing an uncertain future, is poised to have the time. Unfortunately for him, it’s not clear how relevant he is to today’s Republican faithful, or whether many self-branded conservatives are interested in listening to what he has to say.
Bolling’s support for the transportation funding compromise that garnered bipartisan approval in the General Assembly, and his refusal to endorse the Republican — Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — who undermined his own gubernatorial bid this year, diminished his standing among the more vocal, grassroots party activists.
Now, he’s standing at the doorway of the Virginia GOP’s “big tent.” And next to him is another veteran Republican soon to have some free time: Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Like Bolling, the governor supported efforts in the most recent legislative session to raise taxes and fees to fund road projects in Virginia. He has yet to sign the compromise negotiated by delegates and senators, and he told The Pilot’s editorial board last week that he was still evaluating the bill’s components.
McDonnell dismissed the notion that criticism of him and other Republicans over the bill signifies division within the party.
“There was pretty broad Republican leadership support for the bill,” he said, noting the House speaker and majority leaders in both chambers backed it.
That may be true, but it’s also the same point that many of his conservative critics cite to describe “establishment Republicans,” who suddenly are no longer sufficiently pure on policy.
In less than six months, Virginia’s term-limited governor has gone from potential 2016 Republican presidential material to persona non grata on the stage of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, held last week in Washington.
A political action committee supporting Cuccinelli — who opposes the transportation funding bill — paid for an advertisement bashing McDonnell on airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire, two early presidential battlefield states. Meanwhile, the governor has been panned by influential state and national conservative figures, as well as the typically conservative-friendly editorial boards of The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal and The National Review.
The demand for partisan conformity has required sacrificing critical context: McDonnell hasn’t voted for a tax increase in 22 years. He’s tried nearly every gimmick and funding option for a better transportation system except the general tax increase needed, only to witness them fail or prove inadequate.
He’s faced a state general fund that, after adjusting for inflation and population growth, actually declined by 1 percent between 2003 and 2012.
An increase in non-general funds, including higher tuition payments at state colleges and an influx of federal dollars, has fueled the growth of Virginia’s budget, but that money is committed to specific statutory obligations.
On transportation, as McDonnell has noted, the strength of the state’s 17.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax has declined 55 percent since lawmakers approved it in 1986. That leaves him in the unenviable position of trying to articulate a tax break that no one has noticed.
“Our motorists,” McDonnell said, “have really gotten a 55 percent tax cut over 27 years in terms of real purchasing power and inflation adjusted dollars.”
Invoking President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon who more than doubled the federal gas tax, has done little to quell the governor’s conservative opposition. And many seem to have little regard for the 40th president’s record, much less his admonition never to speak ill of a fellow Republican.
McDonnell wouldn’t return the criticism when presented an opportunity last week. “Reagan said it best: ‘You agree with me 80 percent of the time, you’re my friend.’ That’s the way we ought to look at things,” he said. “I think most of us agree on things 80 percent of the time. . . . We just have to understand there’s room for some disagreement.”
It’s just that the little bit of room left is near the doorway.
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