The Virginia campaign is shifting from identity politics to identification politics.
The post-Charlottesville debate over Confederate statuary is a reminder that Virginia and 12 other Southern states, in a failed bid to perpetuate slavery, declared their independence from Washington, D.C.
The post-Phoenix debate over President Donald Trump’s threat to close the federal government next month as leverage for his wall on the U.S. border with Mexico is a reminder of Virginia’s dependence on Washington, D.C.
Attitudes about Rebel iconography — and whether it stays or goes — can be closely tied to a Virginian’s identity: Whether he or she is black, white or brown; conservative, moderate or liberal; rural, suburban or urban.
Attitudes about federal spending — and the disproportionate number of dollars that flow here — are nearly uniform across Virginia: Such beneficence is savored and identifies the state as the suckling its once-uniformly conservative ruling class swore it would never become.
Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie were awkwardly fencing over the future of Confederate monuments — a topic both would just as soon go away — when Trump introduced a potentially monumental political and economic problem: a deliberate shutdown of the government in the finale to Virginia’s election for governor.
This happened ahead of the 2013 gubernatorial election, because a Democratic White House and a Republican Congress failed to agree on spending.
For more than two weeks, it hobbled the Republican, Ken Cuccinelli, contributing to his narrow defeat. For more than two years, it handicapped the Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, clouding his victory by plunging the state into a fiscal crisis from which it finally emerged this past winter.
The 2013 standoff led to sequestration, or automatic across-the-board spending cuts, that killed businesses, erased jobs and shrank tax collections. That blew a $1.5 billion hole in the Virginia budget, forcing reductions in such prized services as education and lending urgency to McAuliffe’s call to diversify Virginia’s economy.
Who knew that meant we’d become a hive of craft breweries?
Northam immediately seized on Trump’s pronouncement, made at a rally in Arizona in which he denigrated fellow Republicans, that a shutdown would force Democrats into a deal: If they wanted to finance their pet projects, they would have to finance his.
Northam labeled it more Trump obstructionism and lambasted Gillespie for what the Republican has stoutly resisted doing: criticize Trump, lest it cost him the votes of Trump Republicans that he can’t afford to lose.
“If Ed Gillespie continues to refuse to denounce the politics of President Trump, then Virginians will know loud and clear that Gillespie is not willing to put our commonwealth’s economy before Trump’s political tactics,” Northam said in a written statement.
Gillespie, a model of message discipline, wasn’t entirely silent, though he let his spokesman do the talking.
“The most basic function of any government, at any level, is to operate efficiently and effectively to serve its citizens well, and Ed’s confident that leaders in Congress and the administration will work together to keep government running this fall,” said David Abrams.
That the Washington bureaucracy could again go dark might strike members of both parties as theater — something that could be avoided with a stop-gap measure to operate the government beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. But in Virginia it is serious business.
More than a quarter of the state’s economy is linked to federal spending — direct and indirect. The growth associated with federal largess has been a magnet for newcomers, reinventing a reddish Virginia as a competitive purple state in which the majority of its residents moved here from somewhere else.
Among them: Gillespie, a Joisey boy, who — like the Noo Yawker McAuliffe he aspires to succeed — achieved fame and fortune at the intersection of commerce and politics. Big government has been very, very good to both men, supplying the wealth and freedom to seek high office in their adoptive state.
Which spotlights one of the oddities of the hissing match over Confederate symbols.
It is the native, Northam, who argues for razing the monuments. It is the non-native, Gillespie, who argues for preserving them. Their stances reflect what their parties have become and how identity politics are pulling them to extremes.
Republicans were largely to blame for the 2013 shutdown, because they were seen as less willing than Democrats to compromise. Republicans would be entirely to blame for a 2017 shutdown — just as they were for failing to repeal Obamacare — because, controlling the White House and Congress, they have no excuse not to compromise.
But that’s not the only Trump-generated fiscal headwind Gillespie could face.
Gillespie, already buffeted by the misfire on health care and the president’s incendiary comments on Charlottesville, also might have to navigate the prospect of another sequestration as well as an increase in the debt ceiling. It is necessary to raise the cash to keep the government open and perhaps avoid automatic spending cuts.
Oh, to change the subject.
Events conspired to do that in 2013.
The government shutdown, which riled all those federal workers in vote-rich Northern Virginia, was suddenly overshadowed by a huge embarrassment for President Barack Obama, who twice carried the state: the screwed-up roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.
That energized Republicans. Cuccinelli came roaring back. It was too little, too late. McAuliffe eked out a 2.5 percentage-point win.
Maybe the candidates would rather talk about Rebel statues.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column Thursday on Richmond.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:45 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).
Article Provided By