I’m not sure if I should care about Bob McDonnell’s thesis
Apologies for diving into the morass of Virginia state politics, but the latest controversy surrounding Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell is pretty interesting. To make a long story short, McDonnell casually mentioned his master’s thesis in conversation with a couple of Washington Post reporters, who promptly dug up the 93 page document from Regent University’s archives. Incidentally, Regent University has a bit of a reputation around these parts, having been founded by conservative televangelist Pat Robertson.
You can read the whole thing here, but the long and short of it is that McDonnell’s thesis includes some pretty controversial social views, which could spell trouble for a candidate whose campaign is premised on economic competency (one of the small ironies of this episode is that McDonnell is now accusing his Democratic opponent, Creigh Deeds, of scaring voters with “divisive social issues”). To give you a better idea of why Democrats are so eager to use McDonnell’s thesis against him, here are a few highlights from the Post:
At age 34, two years before his first election and two decades before he would run for governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell submitted a master’s thesis to the evangelical school he was attending in Virginia Beach in which he described working women and feminists as “detrimental” to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.” He described as “illogical” a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.
I haven’t had time to read through the whole thing, but my initial impression is that it’s something of a cross between “The Party of Sam’s Club” and the religious evangelism of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Which is certainly interesting as far as academic exercises go, but should a decades-old paper matter to Virginia voters? Steve Benen seems to think so:
But the circumstances with McDonnell are a little different. For one thing, he was 34 when he wrote, among other things, that working women and feminists are “detrimental” to American families. It’s harder to dismiss bizarre ideas as a youthful flight of fancy when the author is 34 years old.
More importantly, though, this was not just an academic exercise for a student at a TV preacher’s college. McDonnell’s thesis included a 15-point action plan he wanted to see Republicans follow. Soon after, McDonnell was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he “pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper.”
I can think of two possible responses:
1.) There is such a thing as a sincere change of heart. McDonnell hasn’t disavowed everything he wrote, but he’s definitely walked back some of his more controversial views. In light of the fact that this was written 20 years ago, I’m inclined to give McDonnell the benefit of the doubt. Politicians should at least pretend to be open to empirical or ethical persuasion, and unless the pol in question has a history of being an egregious liar, I’m willing to accept the “changed my mind” explanation at face value.
2.) Benen suggests McDonnell’s thesis should be judged differently than other academic documents because it includes a “political blueprint.” Well, so what? Plenty of academics offer formal and informal advice to policy-makers. Moreover, I’m wary of the chilling effect academic witch-hunts have on the interaction between experts and politicians. Presumably, we want our political leaders to get advice from academics, who are disinterested and frequently more knowledgeable on a particular subject. Academic documents are also fundamentally different from political ones – they’re less vetted, more exploratory, and ultimately less subject to artificial political constraints. I think this is a good thing, and I’d like to see more practical interaction between the academy and policy-makers precisely because academics have more freedom to come up with good ideas.
Bob McDonnell and Cass Sunstein don’t have much in common, but the parallels between Sunstein’s confirmation hearings and McDonnell’s thesis are worth considering. Sunstein, of course, has a long academic paper trail which Republicans gleefully misappropriated while he was confirmed as Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. After watching the proceedings, I suspect Sunstein’s colleagues are decidedly less inclined to get involved in politics. In other words, if we routinely treat academic papers like candidate issue briefs, academics aren’t going to enthusiastically volunteer for the indignity of having their work torn apart by political flacks.
Granted, McDonnell’s scholarship isn’t really comparable to Sunstein’s, but the principle – that academic papers shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as concrete political platforms – is basically the same. McDonnell should stand on his record and his actual proposals, not some decades-old document whose relevance to the current race is tenuous at best.
UPDATE: A friend writes: “As a Virginia Republican, I’m more embarassed by the fact that our former attorney general and future governor went to Regent University.”