Saturday, September 5, 2009

Is Bob McDonnell's Thesis a Legitimate Issue?

Bob McDonnell looks set to be elected Governor of Virginia in November. That is, if a thesis he wrote in 1989 doesn’t get in the way. Here are some highlights:
• He described working women and feminists as “detrimental” to the family
• He said government policy should favor married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.”
• He described as “illogical” a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

The controversy surrounding the thesis raises three interesting questions:

1. Is it legitimate to use a 20 year-old thesis against someone?

It could be depending on the circumstances. If he held exactly the same views as he did then when he wrote the thesis, then using the thesis is legitimate. But I worry about the trend towards digging up all papers by a political candidate. This was done to Michelle Obama last year too. While I disagree with everything written by McDonnell, I’m not sure that I want everything ever written by a politician dredged up during a campaign. This is particularly true when there is a record in office for the politician to be judged on. If this were 1990, and McDonnell had never held any political office, then I’d have an easier time seeing the thesis as relevant.

2. Have McDonnell’s views evolved?

McDonnell himself has said so. I’m willing to give him the benefit of a doubt here. He had a daughter fight in Iraq. His other daughter is coordinating youth outreach for Virginian’s Republican Party. His wife has run businesses. He obviously does not now have anything against women working outside the home. Or at least he is hiding it with his family. As for the Supreme Court decision legalizing contraceptives for unmarried couples, I haven’t seen any indication he’s changed his view on that.

3. Does his explanation make sense?

He has called the whole thing an “academic exercise.” There is perhaps a subtle implication here that he wrote such a thesis to appeal to professors at ultra-conservative Regent University. But what does it say that McDonnell would write a thesis just to try and get the highest grade possible? It says that he is willing to say things he doesn’t believe to pander and advance himself, a quality many voters say they dislike. So either he really believed these things, or he was pretending to hold views he really didn't to get a good grade.

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