David Cox | The thesis
Twenty years ago a Regent University student named Robert F. McDonnell wrote a thesis for his master’s degree. Unearthed by the Washington Post, it’s become fodder for the political campaign this same Mr. McDonnell, now universally known as “Bob,” is waging as a Republican for governor.
His conclusions have drawn plenty of fire. In the Buena Vista parade on Labor Day, various women wore T-shirts or carried signs declaring, “I am not a detriment to society!”—a reference to McDonnell’s saying that working women undermine the family.
These conclusions, though controversial, are predictable. I personally agree with a few, like a voluntary parental-leave program through tax incentives to businesses (p. 66). I disagree with more, but find all of them standard right-wing fare.
How he reaches those conclusions in his thesis, though, force the far more serious question of whether Bob McDonnell has an attitude conducive to be Governor of Virginia.
Entitled “The Republican Party’s Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade,” it sets forth a GOP vision of social ills and how to correct them. “Solutions” range from anti-abortion laws to welfare reform, limited public assistance and tax code changes. Neither McDonnell’s critique nor his suggestions claim to be original
Therein lies problem #1. Nearly all his citations come from conservative and/or Republican sources: Family Research Council publications; testimony by GOP congressmen; “research by Phyllis Schaffley” (p. 39), head of the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum which is hardly known as an objective and dispassionate scholarship.
Of course, then, his conclusions are predictable: Using like-minded citations makes his “solutions” virtually self-fulfilling.
A related problem—call it #1A: Once he quotes then Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo of New York. But McDonnell picked up Cuomo’s words not from Cuomo himself, but from a Republican congressional statement (p. 20; see footnotes 64-65)—and of course it’s negative. But what Cuomo really said was not totally at odds to what McDonnell was arguing. Quoting out of context is never fair, especially not in an academic thesis; but it also makes working difficult with those who stand outside the like-minded circle.
But #1A leads to #2: He utterly dismisses his opponents. “The giftedness of the Republican philosophy is that it embraces the talents and worth of all peoples, while Democrats seek to shepherd a nation of powerless incompetents.” [p. 67]). Pretty harsh. And pretty broad.
Yet this isn’t the only broad claim, making for Problem #2—the confusion that arises therefrom. He declares (p. 2) that “increasingly, Americans are pursuing a selfish individualism which is inconsistent with strong families and strong communities,” but then quotes a Reagan White House working group (p. 4), “Where there are strong families, the freedom of the individual expands and the reach of the state contracts.” So if there’s a difference regarding the individual, what is it?
Finally, and most problematic, is the superficial glance he gives to some extremely difficult situations. He covers divorce, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, public education, tax woes, and mothers working outside the home each in a paragraph or so. There can be no evaluation of any complexities…yet “evaluation” is what he claims to give.
One case in point: he notes increasing percentages of women employed outside the house (p. 5). Then he bemoans the effect on “latchkey kids”—me too—and later worries about children in day care centers. He mentions two-income households and the economic benefit that may accrue; but what about single moms more concerned about survival?
In 1989, a terrific child-care/learning center was housed in our church. I’d guess that 10-15 percent of the children came from a single-mother home (I find that today’s statistics are about the same). Some years later, welfare-to-work reforms (which had its positive points) made training and jobs mandatory: Unless family could help, mothers had to choose between working, and staying at home and starving. In other words, even if McDonnell’s assumptions are broadly true, there’s around 10-15 percent for whom they do not apply.
Therein lies the danger. Never does Mr. McDonnell, the student, test the theories of his ideology against the details of life to see if they make any sense to the realities of people’s lives.
Four questions, then, arise from the thesis:
1. If Bob McDonnell becomes governor, will he listen, really listen, to those beyond his own circle?
2. Can he truly work with Democrats and/or non-social conservatives?
3. Will he resort to broad generalities to notice the details of reality that may not coincide with his stereotypes?
4. Finally, will he recognize the sheer complexity of issues and situations in which our people live?
To be fair, Mr. McDonnell recently explained, “Like everybody, my views on many issues have changed as I have gotten older.” Perhaps; but since my concern is not what he held as a 34-year-old—no spring chicken–but rather how he arrived at those views, I ask: Have those fundamental approaches changed?
The electorate will be the ultimate judge.
This David Cox column originally appeared in the Rockbridge Weekly.