by Paul Goldman
The reaction by Governor McDonnell’s able press guy (Tucker Martin) to the letter from Democratic Senator Chap Petersen (return the gifts, come clean, or resign) – was boilerplate. Mr. Martin called Petersen’s statement blatantly partisan, uninformed, and based on media reports.
Even assuming, arguendo, that this were true, it is what they use to call in the days of Watergate a “non-denial denial.”
The Washington Post, the Virginian Pilot, the Richmond Times Dispatch, the Roanoke Times and people who have advised several Governors have also told Mr. McDonnell: you can’t simply “stonewall” the situation any more than could General Stonewall Jackson.
Yes, the Governor has a good technical legal defense: I didn’t have to report gifts I thought were made to my family. But Mr. Martin and the Governor’s lawyers make a huge mistake in thinking this is just a case before federal and state investigators, or part of a current or perhaps future legal proceeding.
Let’s cut to the chase: Whatever the Governor may have thought back when, he now knows the Rolex was a gift from Mr. Williams. The public also now knows that Mr. Williams and Star Scientific have been making a lot of expensive “gifts” to the McDonnells. So the question before the Governor is this: What did Mr. Williams expect to gain from these gifts?
The Governor and Mr. Martin keep saying that Mr. Williams got no state contracts, appointments, etc. But that isn’t answering the question. The issue isn’t what Mr. Williams DIDN’T get. The issue is: What DID he get?
Mr. Williams is not a philanthropist, nor has ever claimed to be. He is a business guy in this case hawking his new product. No one in Virginia believes Mr. Williams merely gave these gifts as a friend of the family. So again: What did he get for the gifts? The Governor says nothing. The public doesn’t believe it.
So what should we watch? Easy: The reaction of Republicans, especially members of the House of Delegates running for re-election and others thinking about their political future.
At some point, the Democrats will wake-up and realize they have a great political issue. Mr. Martin will claim the Democrats’ sudden interest in gift reform is all politics, and he may be right. But that doesn’t change the situation on the ground, as they say in the military. The issue will resonate with the public as long as the Governor stonewalls and dares the press to write and more stories.
So far: The Republicans have stuck with McDonnell and not said a word. As long as this continues, Mr. Martin can cry “politics” all he wants. It doesn’t help his guy: but it does provide a temporary shelter.
Sooner or later, the Democrats will figure out that they need to force every Republican on the record on the issue. THEN WE WILL SEE HOW SUCCESSFUL GOVERNOR MCDONNELL’S non-denial “denial” strategy has worked.
So watch to see when Republicans start running a little scared. Once they throw the Governor overboard to save their political hides, the non-denial “denial” strategy will be seen as a bad decision, way too risky versus the reward.
At which point, the Governor will realize: Mr. Petersen and those of us who have called on the Governor to return the gifts and apologize to the public were actually trying to be fair, not partisan. McDonnell is actually the one making it partisan. And when his own party starts leaving him, he will realize it is a big mistake but too late to get any credit for doing the right thing.