McDonnell: Scholar…Governor…Both…Neither…?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell is confronting a particularly tricky political opponent: himself. Twenty years ago, at the age of 34, McDonnell wrote an academic thesis titled “The Republican Party’s Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issues of the Decade.” Among other gender-based policy topics, his thesis opposed federal tax credits for child care expenditures, because the credits encouraged women to enter the workforce, and criticized a Supreme Court decision that legalized contraception for unmarried couples.

McDonnell’s past writings and current candidacy provoke an interesting question: Should we judge political candidates by their decades-old academic views? McDonnell claims that many of the views he expressed in his thesis have changed, in light of his growing family, his work experience, and his legislative activities. He no longer believes that family stability depends on women being excluded from the workforce, but he does still support an especially controversial position in the paper: that marriage should be heterosexual.

A similar question arose in the 2008 presidential election, when a paper from now-President Obama’s Harvard Law Review tenure gave reporters fodder for past belief analysis. An unsigned 1990 article by the President examined the question of allowing fetuses to file lawsuits against their mothers. Then-student Obama wrote that allowing fetuses to sue could cause mothers to take more risks with their pregnancies and would violate mother’s rights. The piece was more journalistic than argumentative, using terms like “may” and “many people think.” This narrow question is hardly the bombshell that McDonnell’s thesis is proving to be, but it still prompts us to ask: do a person’s academic views accurately predict the positions they will espouse as legislators or executives?

Perhaps we should instead examine the way our candidates reached their positions as students. Did Bob McDonnell back up his assertions with hard data? Did President Obama provide all the relevant facts when assessing fetus v. mother suits? It is tempting to assume that a person’s former academic views will match their current views as candidates or lawmakers, but past papers should be mere springboards for discussion. However objectionable an old position might be, the real questions when examining old papers are, what will the author do in office today? Does he have the same goals today that he had as a student?

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Published in: on September 21, 2009 at 7:31 am Comments Off on McDonnell: Scholar…Governor…Both…Neither…?
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