The Republican who wants to end the Trump era – without attacking Trump

Who does he think he is? Youngkin has only been governor for six months. Running for president under any circumstances takes self-confidence, but in his case, it would take jaw-dropping self-esteem.

Why not mockery and derision? A generation ago, that probably would have welcomed a candidate with his short tenure. Even now, Youngkin probably wouldn’t have the nerve to gossip about national politics — his busy schedule in Richmond still gave him time to appear on “Face the Nation” last weekend — except to other people sincerely invite him to do so.

Who knows what happens in Politics 2024, but the fact that Youngkin isn’t a joke says a lot about Politics 2022.

Youngkin’s case theory begins with a paradox. He attracts many Republicans because they believe his 2021 victory in Virginia shows he has found a way to make Donald Trump irrelevant. For now, however, Trump’s hovering omnipresence is virtually the only reason Youngkin — with meager accomplishments reflecting his limited tenure — is relevant.

With his victory over former Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2021, Youngkin managed to keep the coalition of Trump supporters intact and add to it a sizable chunk of suburban voters who hate Trump and gave the state to Joe Biden in 2020 by ten points. This result, combined with victories for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Virginia in the previous three elections and a string of Democratic victories in statewide offices, has led many to believe that the the once purple Dominion had become a reliable blue state. Youngkin, leading a statewide sweep, sent that analysis to the trash. He did all of this – almost alone among contemporary politicians – under the illusion that Trump was no big deal. He did not denounce Trump. He kissed Trump in a way that seemed superficial. It kept Trump out of state and, in relative terms, out of the public consciousness, at least when voters were making a gubernatorial choice.

When it comes to his treatment of other Republicans, Trump can be considered a very temperamental dog. Don’t try to be nice and pet him, he’ll sink his fangs unexpectedly. Don’t show fear – it just makes him rush. Do not be aggressive and confront him – you will be maimed. Instead, Youngkin said calmly, “Good boy,” then passed quickly while Trump was busy sniffing and digging in the yard. Was it the triumph of a shrewd political technique or a random fluke?

People who speculate on Youngkin’s national future don’t care much about what he has or hasn’t done for transportation infrastructure in Northern Virginia. They think the 55-year-old former investment banker may have found a formula to make the last six years disappear — to return to the style of GOP leadership we associate with names like Bush and Romney.

Trump is also a reflection of a larger phenomenon that allows Youngkin to be taken seriously. It is the concept of virality as a dominant factor in presidential politics. In a media-saturated environment, it is believed, a public figure has certain electric moments when they can arouse public curiosity and support. But these moments must be seized quickly or dissipate. In these lights, politics is not a mechanical process – organization, endorsements, broadcast platforms – but a chemical process in which personality and national mood interact in explosive ways. Nothing has demonstrated the power of chemistry over mechanics like Trump’s brutal demolition of Jeb Bush in the 2016 primaries. Now Youngkin obviously wants to harness chemistry again to reverse the process.

Two different precedents, pointing in different directions, are relevant to Youngkin’s circumstances.

Obama is the patron saint of anyone who doesn’t believe in the old rules of taking turns. He had only been in the Senate for two years when he announced what at first looked like a long-running bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. In his memoir, he recalls the advice given to him by Ted Kennedy “You think maybe you’re not ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the moment. Time chooses you. Either you take what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide that you are ready to live knowing that luck has passed you by.

But there is another case study closer to home for Youngkin. Doug Wilder, a Virginia governor whom I covered as a young journalist, gained national attention when in 1989 he became the nation’s first black elected governor. With a dazzling personality, 20 years in state politics and a historic win in the Confederacy capital, his credentials seemed more plausible than Youngkin’s for a presidential bid. Less than a year after taking office, he was a candidate. In an interview on Wednesday, Wilder recalled the reaction of former supporters: “How dare you!” He said the loudest applause he ever received was when he later announced he was ending his candidacy to devote himself full-time to Virginia.

Wilder said he thought Youngkin “got off to a good start” as governor, but it was obvious what he needed to do now. Respond to all presidential requests by emphatically saying, “Every ounce of my energy and time goes to the people of Virginia.” National politics, Wilder said, may well be in Youngkin’s future. But he said Youngkin should build a longer case and heed the advice Wilder learned early in a career of political bargaining: “You have to put something on the table besides your elbows.”

So who does Youngkin think he is? He was a star athlete in high school, a Division 1 basketball player in college, an extremely wealthy business executive as an adult, and won Virginia’s top job the first time he showed up for anything. Fanning his competitive fires, or imagining that fate might have something special in store for him, probably comes as naturally to him as breathing. Moreover, in indulging in presidential speculation, Youngkin follows the rules as they exist in a media-driven political era, without inventing his own rules.

Recent history suggests keeping Youngkin Mania under control for now. I don’t know the current governor, but I know and have covered a considerable line of his predecessors. Charles Robb, George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Bob McDonnell, in addition to Wilder and McAuliffe. All were governors who imagined themselves, and in most cases were imagined by many others, as potential presidents. Virginia’s law limiting the ban on consecutive-term governors, combined with its status as a swing state, combined with its proximity to the nation’s capital — all tend to garner national attention. But so far, no Virginia governor has served as president since John Tyler in 1841.

In order to overcome this history or carve out the future of the GOP, Youngkin must first reckon with a present in which he is primarily interested in what he is not. Pressed on Face the Nation about whether Trump should run again, Youngkin demonstrated his mastery of the obvious: “President Trump is going to do what President Trump wants to do.”


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