Skip to main content

Will Bob McDonnell be a presidential contender?

By Reihan Salam, CNN Contributor
February 27, 2013 -- Updated 1029 GMT (1829 HKT)
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reihan Salam: Gov. Bob McDonnell isn't a leading GOP presidential contender
  • Salam: McDonnell's 2009 campaign is a great template for a national GOP campaign
  • He says the governor, popular and pragmatic, pushed for an important transportation bill
  • Salam: It may be a long shot, but McDonnell should be included in GOP presidential field

Editor's note: Reihan Salam, a CNN contributor, is a columnist for Reuters; a writer for the National Review's "The Agenda" blog; a policy adviser for e21, a nonpartisan economic research group; and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

(CNN) -- Among Republican insiders, Bob McDonnell, governor of Virginia, isn't considered a leading presidential contender. Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan and Rand Paul have all garnered more attention. The more interesting question has been -- until this week, at least -- why that is the case.

McDonnell has the virtue of not only having won a gubernatorial race in one of America's most important swing states but of having remained relatively popular. A new Quinnipiac University survey found that McDonnell had an approval rating of 53% and a disapproval rating of 28%. And though Virginia bars its governors from seeking a consecutive second term, there is a better than even chance that McDonnell would defeat Terry McAuliffe, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee, if he were allowed to run in 2013. The same can't be said of tea party stalwart Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican attorney general who is running to succeed McDonnell.

Moreover, McDonnell's 2009 campaign was in many respects an excellent template for a national GOP campaign, as it focused on job creation and energy development while largely avoiding ideological bromides.

Reihan Salam
Reihan Salam

Part of the reason McDonnell was able to run as jobs-centric pragmatist is that his socially conservative convictions were not in serious dispute. Indeed, Democrats in 2009 sought to highlight McDonnell's anti-abortion views, but to no avail. Just one year after Barack Obama had rallied moderate voters in Virginia's affluent northern counties, McDonnell managed to win many of them back. He aggressively courted Asian-American and Latino voters, an effort that helped blunt the growing Democratic advantage in these constituencies. One would think Republicans would be beating down McDonnell's door.

But recently, many conservative activists have soured on McDonnell. For much of 2012, the Virginia governor has struggled to make progress on his policy agenda. Progress in some areas, like K-12 education, has been overshadowed by inaction in others, like the privatization of Virginia's state-owned liquor stores or the all-important issue of alleviating traffic congestion.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Last week, however, McDonnell finally brokered a deal with the Virginia General Assembly to finance a sharp increase in new transportation spending with new taxes. This is despite the fact that McDonnell had pledged to resist any and all tax increases in his 2009 campaign.

McDonnell has touted the potential benefits of the deal, emphasizing the economic costs of traffic congestion and the enormous gains that would flow from reducing it. But the tax increases have met with strong opposition from Cuccinelli, whom McDonnell has endorsed, and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and guardian of its Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

McDonnell: GOP soul-searching 'healthy'
New strategy for the GOP

This reaction is hardly surprising. Virginia's new transportation plan scraps the commonwealth's $0.175-per-gallon tax on gasoline, the value of which has eroded with inflation since it was first set at that rate in 1987, and replaces it with a 3.5% whole tax on motor fuel that will grow with the economy and the price level. It also raises Virginia's retail sales tax on most items from 5% to 5.3%, with a further increase to 6% in the most traffic-congested regions to pay for local transportation projects. All told, these new revenue measures will raise as much as $880 million per year, with an additional $200 million to be shifted to transportation from other spending priorities.

Not everyone is furious about McDonnell's measure that would increase taxes. Some prominent voices, including Washington Post conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin and Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney, have praised the governor for addressing Virginia's transportation woes. One wonders whether McDonnell might somehow be able to turn a liability -- having reneged on his tax pledge -- into a strength by presenting himself as a pragmatic, bipartisan problem-solver.

It's a long shot, given that primaries tend to be dominated by highly ideological voters. But it might be worth a shot all the same, particularly if the Republican presidential field proves thinner than expected in 2016.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Reihan Salam.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT