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Why Bob McDonnell's Fall Is So Damaging to the Republican Brand

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It’s easy to forget that, not that long ago at all, Bob McDonnell seemed liked he might be headed for the Todd Akin Box of Republican candidates. During his 2009 run for governor of Virginia, the Washington Post turned up the 94-page thesis that McDonnell wrote for his graduate degree at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, at the not-so-young age of 34. In the thesis, the Post reported, McDonnell “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.”

But McDonnell won election anyway, by pulling off one of the more radical remakings in recent electoral history—in the blink of an eye, he turned himself from an anti-fornication crusader into a sober-minded pro-business conservative. Instead of dwelling on abortion and gay marriage, McDonnell focused his term on finding new transportation funding and fighting Obamacare (there was the unfortunate matter of the “transvaginal probes,” but that was the inspiration of GOP legislators.) So deft was McDonnell’s transformation that he started being mentioned as a 2012 vice presidential candidate and 2016 presidential material.

And it’s precisely McDonnell’s remaking of himself into a pro-business conservative that makes his indictment on federal corruption charges so potentially damaging to the Republican Party. The party’s establishment leaders, and their associated boosters in the conservative press and think tankery, have tried hard to differentiate responsible, business-minded Republicans who care only about cutting taxes and blocking the expansion of Medicaid from Paleolithic social-issues conservatives like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock who prattle on about “legitimate rape” and pregnancies from rape being “something that God intended to happen.” Meanwhile, to defend the pro-business Republican line against the liberal charge that it favors corporate and Wall Street elites in a time of rising inequality, Chamber of Commerce Republicans and conservative pundits have gone to great lengths to accuse Democrats of being the true “crony capitalists,” who are exacerbating economic divides and keeping down the working man via big-government schemes such as Solyndra and Obamacare.

It’s a clever bit of jujitsu that distracts from the fact that Wall Street and big business overwhelmingly favor Republicans with their campaign contributions and that Republican governors such as Rick Perry have been doling out goodies to favored companies like so much Halloween candy. But the Bob McDonnell scandal seriously undermines the whole gambit. After all, what is more crony capitalist than accepting tens of thousands of dollars of gifts and cash from a vitamin-supplement entrepreneur seeking state funding and promotion for his new product, Anatabloc, as McDonnell and his wife stand accused of doing? Republican rhetoric about being “pro-business” and favoring “job creators” starts to lose some luster when seen through the lens of the McDonnell case; the eye-popping indictment reads like an allegory of the liberal critique of the Republican-corporate alliance, complete with Rolex watches, Ralph Lauren golf shirts and Louis Vuitton shoes.

That’s not to say that the scandal would not have been possible had McDonnell stayed on the religious-right track he was on—his and his wife’s behavior was driven by the financial desperation of an overstretched deluxe lifestyle that predated his transformation. But it’s just his party’s bad luck that this happened to Bob McDonnell, Country Club Republican rather than to Bob McDonnell, Pat Robertson Republican, and it surely helps explain why mainstream conservatives are so eager to disown and disparage him. It’s quite remarkable, really: Here, Republicans finally have the ultimate, legitimate example of crony capitalism installed in the governor’s mansion of Virginia to take shots at—Terry McAuliffe—but it’s his Republican predecessor who stands accused of cronyism at its most crass. Somewhere in that mansion, the Macker is popping surplus Anatablocs and laughing.