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Reasons to Be Thankful for Bob McDonnell

It's turning out that Bob McDonnell had all of us fooled.

When he ran for governor in 2009, Democrats cast him as a hard-right social-conservative ideologue, playing up the eyebrow-raising graduate-school dissertation he wrote in his early 30s, in which he inveighed against, among others, "homosexuals, cohabitators and fornicators." Republicans, in turn, hailed McDonnell as a sober pro-business conservative who would run the state as rigorously as he parted his hair.

Well, McDonnell has not lived up to Democrats' worst fears as a religious-right zealot. Aside from that brief and disastrous flirtation with the transvaginal ultrasound, he has mostly left social-issue ideology to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee to replace him. But he has also veered from the Republican script as well. Sober, upstanding Bob McDonnell, we now know, has been on a term-long bender. The Washington Post's ace reporters in Richmond have laid bare a seemingly endless stream of self-dealing in the Governor's Mansion, most of it revolving around a major donor, a dietary-supplement entrepreneur, who has showered McDonnell's family with gifts: picking up the $15,000 catering tab at McDonnell's daughter's wedding, buying McDonnell a $6,500 Rolex, and giving $70,000 to a corporation owned by McDonnell and his sister and $50,000 to McDonnell's wife, a former Redskins cheerleader who has helped the donor, Jonnie Williams, Jr., market his controversial new dietary supplement with, among other things, an event at the Governor's Mansion. Just to make things a little tackier, the governor and his family have allegedly been absconding with food and supplies from the mansion kitchen and improperly spending taxpayer money on all manners of personal goodies, including detox cleanses, energy drinks and trips to pick up his grown children's dry cleaning.

What's slightly puzzling is why the burgeoning scandal has not gotten more national notice, given that it is playing out in the hometown paper in the nation's capital and involves the governor of one of the most important swing states in the country. Part of it surely has to do with the fact that McDonnell was already beginning to look like a bit of a has-been—he'd been passed over as Mitt Romney's running mate (seemingly because of the transvaginal-ultrasound matter, but perhaps also because of inside-dope on the Jonnie Williams problem), was barred from reelection by Virginia's one-term limit and wasn't as enticing as other 2016 GOP prospects. But I suspect that the lack of attention for the story also has to do with the way that McDonnell's scandal has subverted stereotypes. Liberals, and their media mouthpieces at places like MSNBC, have developed certain boxes for conservative misdeeds: There are the Clueless Neanderthals (like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock) and there are the Brazen Hypocrites (like David Vitter and Mark Sanford). There's not really a box, or much alacrity, for garden-variety self-dealing of the variety that seems to have occurred in Richmond, which harkens instead to precursors like John Rowland, the Connecticut governor who resigned and spent 10 months in prison after accepting all manner of freebies from a contractor.

But it's a mistake for liberals to be shrugging at the McDonnell story, or seeing it as less enticing than scandals that touch on social issues. Why? Because the McDonnell saga directly undercuts what has emerged as perhaps the favorite line of conservative attack against the Obama administration and Democrats generally: that they are the party of "crony capitalism," in which an ever-larger government makes special arrangements with favored players in big business, whether it's the banks protected under Dodd-Frank or insurers carved out in Obamacare or green energy companies given stimulus loans. Never mind that the banks were so favored by Dodd-Frank that they turned their campaign giving sharply against the Democrats in 2010 election that followed the passage of the law, or that the health insurers spent heavily on ads to try to defeat Obamacare. The narrative holds: Crony Capitalism, thy color is blue.

L'affaire McDonnell is an obvious problem for that narrative: It doesn't get much more crony capitalist then inviting a businessman into the Governor's Mansion to tout a controversial product around the same time as he is helping pay for your daughter's wedding and buying you a Rolex. Heck, that's so crony-capitalist that it's positively Russian.

Of course, there is another obvious reason that Democrats may not be capitalizing on all this as they should. The Democratic candidate to succeed McDonnell is Terry McAuliffe, who is not exactly the person best suited to launch a critique of ethics in government. If he had his druthers, McAuliffe would much rather have McDonnell in hot water over some social-issues zaniness. But instead of Legitimate Rape, we ended up with the Illegitimate Rolex.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.