Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, is in the dock. His crime, judging from outraged liberal commentary? He seems to have noticed that certain liberal positions aren’t popular.
His campaign is “vile and dishonest,” Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. writes. It represents “white identity politics,” tweets Chris Hayes, editor at large at the Nation. He’s following a “poisonous strategy for the nation and Virginia,” according to the Post’s editorial staff. Reporters as well as pundits have accepted this story line: Jonathan Martin informed New York Times readers that Gillespie is running “a racially tinged, divisive campaign.”
There are three main indictments against Gillespie. First, he supports keeping Confederate statues on public property and has run ads contrasting his stance with that of the Democratic candidate, Ralph Northam, who is currently the commonwealth’s lieutenant governor.
Until recently, Virginia’s sitting governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, took the same position as Gillespie. It’s still the position of 57 percent of Virginians, including 44 percent who hold it “strongly.” Agree or disagree, it’s not a racist view. And it’s no more “divisive” than seeking to bring down the statues.
Second, Gillespie has run ads highlighting the menace of the MS-13 gang and portraying Northam as soft on the issue. In particular, he has noted Northam’s vote to allow cities in Virginia to set themselves up as “sanctuaries” that refuse to cooperate with federal enforcement of laws against illegal immigration.
But Virginians are right to be concerned about increased gang activity, and opposition to sanctuary laws on public-safety grounds is a legitimate view. Northam has more or less conceded the point by flip-flopping on the issue, leading one liberal activist group to accuse the Democrat, too, of being a racist.
Third, Gillespie has attacked Northam for supporting the automatic restoration of rights for felons who have completed their sentences. An ad dwelt on a (white) child-pornography convict who was eligible for those rights. The Post’s outraged editorial about the ad grudgingly admits that Gillespie is “technically” right in describing what happened but argues that the Republican is blowing the issue out of proportion.
In each case, liberals are not so much answering Gillespie’s argument as complaining that he dares to make it — especially since, in each case, it appears to be drawing blood from the Democrats.
Supposedly, Gillespie, in raising these issues, is running as an acolyte of President Donald Trump. That’s the view of his liberal critics, and it’s the self-interested view of some Trump allies, too. Gillespie is campaigning just like Trump — except that he hasn’t called for a Muslim ban, or made claims that Mexican-Americans can’t be good judges, or demanded mass deportations, or advocated war crimes, or chanted for the jailing of his opponent. Not to mention that he has some relatively well-considered position papers, too.
The Gillespie-as-Trump story line ignores a lot of political history from before 2016. Pre-Trump Republicans had often run hardball campaigns based on positions — seeking welfare reform and tougher sentencing for criminals — that liberals deemed racist. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, as establishment a Republican as they come, exploited his opponent Michael Dukakis’s past support for granting weekend furloughs to prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. It was a lunatic policy that led to predictable tragedy. Bush was right to use it to question Dukakis’s outlook and judgment, even if liberals reacted by accusing him of appealing to racists.
One reason Democrats lost that election is that the liberals of that era were too prone to attribute legitimate differences of opinion to racism. As they’re showing in Virginia, it’s a problem they still have.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.