By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist
Virginia’s new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, raced into office bearing two culture war baubles. One was a ban on teaching critical race theory. The other was a prohibition on mask mandates in public schools.
Each came in the form of an executive order. Neither costs anything. And both are of little consequence.
In terms of politics, however, they serve the function of provoking liberals, to the delight of the right wing. Youngkin’s first week in office, The Washington Post headline read, “leaves Republicans jubilant, Democrats fuming.”
Bear in mind that the Post, as much of the liberal-friendly media does, profits on the ability to raise its audience’s anxiety level and thereby keep its customers glued. CNN does that, too.
The day Newt Gingrich threatened Jan. 6 committee members with jail if Republicans regain the majority, CNN featured the menacing video about every hour. The former House speaker has been out of office for 23 years, but his moronic comment, amplified by “respectable” media, made him seem relevant again. (The smartest response came from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat on the committee, who brushed it off, saying that the notably gaunt Gingrich looked “unwell.”)
Take a closer look at Youngkin’s executive orders. Critical race theory is not taught in Virginia’s K-12 schools, so banning it is an exercise in virtue signaling, Trump style. As a candidate, Youngkin backed letting local school districts make policy on masks, which is what a real conservative would do.
Now at least seven school boards have filed lawsuits against Youngkin, arguing that the state constitution empowers local school boards to run their districts. Also, state law requires schools to follow federal health guidelines.
Naturally, this has raised to a boil conflicts that were just simmering before. One woman in Page County threatened to bring a gun to a school that had instituted a mask requirement. This inconveniently comes at a time when schools are already struggling with the loss of teachers sick with covid-19 or quitting the profession. Meanwhile, children who have already missed so much school might benefit from some months of peace in the classroom.
Youngkin did temper his position on critical race theory. (Almost no one understands this controversial academic concept, which portrays racism as systemic.) He noted that Virginia’s history contains “ugly” chapters, thus suggesting that America’s painful history on race would be honestly taught.
Youngkin got elected in this generally Democratic state by portraying himself as a not-scary Republican who would fight off the left’s excesses. The political press has since been raking his words for evidence of how moderate he would be.
Despite his reckless (or naive) stirring of turmoil early on, the political press still doesn’t know. It’s possible that Youngkin took what he thought were some insignificant swipes at the left to appease the right before he embarks on the course of normal governance. That’s a hope.
But here is where Youngkin’s first days may come back to haunt his party. Whether he intends to be more Trumpian or less, Youngkin has probably hurt the chances of Republicans who hoped to win in Democratic states by playing the moderate.
The models, Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland, avoid the kind of political nastiness that’s now making civic life in Virginia so unpleasant. Having campaigned as one of them, Youngkin is making that sales pitch harder to pull off.
Democrats, meanwhile, would do well to quietly govern and let the opposition fuel the division that drives the public crazy. We all should be mindful that Youngkin won the governorship by only 2 percentage points.
The culture war may not quite be the free lunch Republicans think is.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at email@example.com.