You didn’t have to travel to one of the state’s western extremes, Bath County — site of the Ed Gillespie-Ralph Northam debate — to appreciate that the center is vanishing from Virginia politics.
It wasn’t too long ago a campaign for governor was about the Virginia Way, that politics — once the state discarded segregation and the parsimony required to enforce it — was about the practical: sound schools, a reliable workforce, dependable transportation, safe streets and a clean environment.
But as Virginia grows and diversifies and its electorate increasingly reflects the nation as a whole — read: polarized — the practical is subsumed to the partisan. Democrat Northam and Republican Gillespie, both innately practical fellows, played to this before the Virginia Bar Association on Saturday, talking to their voters — but not the rest of us.
Gillespie and Northam, whether they wanted to or not, had a lot to say about Donald Trump, health care, immigration and federal spending — individuals and issues that preoccupy the hard kernel of their parties but over which the next governor will have little control.
A 90-minute debate with questions selected by the moderator — a network newscaster whose beat is Washington, not Richmond — isn’t the best setting for getting into the weeds about state aid to local schools, the outdated tax system, tuition creep at public colleges, an unevenly financed road network, and the opioid scourge of the countryside.
These are matters that affect Virginians daily, more often than not complicating their lives, and yet when Northam and Gillespie touched on them, they usually did so in sweeping terms and often pairing them with feigned disbelief or a gratuitous swipe at the other guy. Ouch moments, if you will.
For Gillespie, Trump is an anvil around his neck, one he can’t shake even if he could. Gillespie needs Trump voters, every single one of them. His attempt at distancing himself from the president — but not really — threatens to hurt him with Republicans who demand he stand with Trump and independents who expect him to stand apart.
Time and again, Gillespie’s frustration over Trump was evident. About the best Gillespie, a pay-to-say communicator of the K Street kind, could do in reconciling the competing pressures on his candidacy: “I don’t agree with everything the president says or tweets and I’ve made that clear. My focus is on Virginia.”
Northam depicted his opponent as a partisan menace who, as a national Republican apparatchik, guided his party’s gerrymandering to perpetuate at state capitols and the U.S. Capitol GOP majorities that neutered Democrats even in states, such as Virginia, that tip blue in statewide elections.
When Gillespie, who once boasted of his role in rigging legislative boundaries for his party, interjected that it is difficult to de-politicize politics, Northam, usually a model of Old South decorum, replied with the equivalent of a rolled newspaper to the snout, “I haven’t been interrupting you; so I’d appreciate the common courtesy.”
Selling themselves for governor, the candidates’ salesmanship couldn’t be more dissimilar. There’s an authenticity to both men, and flashes of it were evident in a format supposedly designed to demand brief answers and briefer rebuttals, neither of which either man obliged.
Gillespie finds humor in politics — if only because it is a human pursuit — and he is capable of great bellowing laughter; for instance, delighting at a chance to catalogue his differences with Gov. Terry McAuliffe when the questioner meant to refer to Trump.
Gillespie has always been a disciplined rhetorician, artful in his choice of words and attune to an audience’s fleeting patience. Northam, shamed into improving as a debater during the primary fight with Tom Perriello, still has an aw-shucks speaking style that, nonetheless, allows to drive in the shiv — sometimes without his opponent noticing.
Northam and Gillespie are products of the once-vast political center, where problems — many of them bitterly fought — were ultimately solved with a measure of comity. But in an era of tribal politics, both men are penalized by members of their own parties for views that, these days, are considered disloyal.
Northam has to explain having twice voted for Bush II — it was before he got into politics, never mind that doctors supposedly are default Republicans. Gillespie won’t mention his bromance with McAuliffe, the origin of which was their cheerful smack-downs on the Sunday chat shows as chairmen of their national political parties.
Even in a setting as gracious as The Homestead resort, Gillespie and Northam served up red meat for the masses watching the debate in real time online or soaking up the tweet storms of true believers. The candidates’ sop to everyone else was to periodically sheath in coded language views tailored for the base.
Gillespie dared not talk about Trump’s Muslim ban for the perceived xenophobic spasm that it is. Instead, it’s a “pause,” he said, to assert control over American borders during a period of peril — a point on which he leaves little to the imagination in for-your-eyes-only, online advertisements that feature immigration police leading people away in handcuffs.
Northam is almost mechanical in underscoring his support for abortion rights, an article of faith among many women voters. But at the debate, he cast restrictions on abortion — some of them written by women in the heavily male Republican legislative caucus — as intended “to shame a woman.”
It was an ouch moment in a campaign that is being built on them.