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My Concern About Ralph Northam — and Why on June 13, I Will Vote for Tom Perriello

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by Andy Schmookler

Like other Virginia Democrats I know, I will strongly support whoever is the Democratic nominee for governor this fall against any possible Republican nominee.

And like many other Democrats I know, I recognize the importance of making sure that the Democratic primary race does no damage to the prospects for a Democratic victory in November.

But at the same time we do have a choice to make in the Democratic Primary in June. And while I believe that either candidate would make a good governor, that choice does not seem to me trivial.

There is one thing that looms largest for me in making my choice.

It’s something of a kind that would not weigh so heavily if these were normal political times. But they are not normal, and have not been for quite a while. It is important, in my view, that we have leaders now who understand the dangerous forces at work in these times at the deep level in American politics.

For a great many people, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency set off alarm bells. But it also must be understood that Trump’s rise to the presidency didn’t just happen, as if some foreign power suddenly invaded the United States and foisted upon us a dangerous man to rule us. No, his election is irrefutable evidence that something must already have gone terribly wrong in our body politic to make the victory of such a man even conceivable.

The most important political truth of our times is that some deep dynamics in the American power system are threatening all that’s best in America.

Two elements of Ralph Northam’s record lead me to believe that Ralph Northam doesn’t get this, that he lacks awareness of this deep level at which the crucial battle for the soul of America is being fought.

The more recent piece of evidence concerns how Ralph Northam dealt with the election of Donald Trump. Up until Tom Perriello had entered the race and had clearly struck a chord with many voters with his impassioned messages about the danger posed by Trump, to the best of my knowledge Northam did not act as if the election of Trump was a potentially catastrophic development threatening the integrity of America.

By itself, Northam’s not expressing alarm, or calling us to battle, could be interpreted in a variety of ways.

For example, one can imagine a candidate making the judgment that, with forty-some percent of the Virginia electorate having voted for Donald Trump, it would not be a smart political strategy to risk alienating so many voters by speaking the alarming truth about the leader they had supported. After all, at that point, Northam had no reason to believe he would face competition for the nomination. So, a politician in Northam’s position in the post-election period might reasonably decide it would be more important stay on the good side of voters across the political spectrum than to spark the passions of the Democratic base.

But, troublingly, there is another fact about Northam’s political history that suggests an alterntive explanation of Northam’s lack of a strong public response to Trump’s election.

I’m referring to the fact, widely reported, that Northam voted twice for George W. Bush for president.

Now, I can imagine someone voting for Bush in 2000, “compassionate conservative” that W then could semi-plausibly claim himself to be.

But 2004 was an entirely different matter.

By 2004, the dark nature of the Bush presidency was already blatantly obvious to anyone with eyes to see. With Rove and Cheney at his side, Bush had willfully demolished the nation’s post-9/11 national unity, using the “war on terror” dishonestly and for purely partisan advantage. He had lied us into a war. (Indeed, the rampant lying of the Bush presidency helped prepare the way for our present liar-in-chief.)

The manifold wrong-doings of the Bush presidency were already, by 2004 — to use the title of the book by John Dean, who was in a position to know — “worse than Watergate.”

(For me, Bush’s re-election in 2004 was literally a life-changing event. It was the most disturbing political event of my life — up until this November — and after a painful, sleepless night I resolved upon the path of fighting the dark force that had just prevailed, a path I’ve been on ever since.)

But Northam voted to give George W. Bush — who was probably the worst president in American history before now, being more willfully destructive than such another contender for that prize as James Buchanan — a second term.

I don’t know what he did or did not see or understand, that enabled him to imagine that a second term for W was preferable for the nation than the election of the unfairly swift-boated John Kerry. But like any other voter, I am compelled to draw what conclusions I can from the evidence I possess.

Putting together Northam’s apparent lack of agitation about the election of so grotesque a man as Donald Trump with his having voted twice for George W. Bush the conclusion I draw about Ralph Northam is this:

If he is our next governor, he may well be excellent on a whole range of policy measures. For all I know, he may be a good administrator and able to play his cards with the legislature with skill. I’ve met him and he seems a decent guy.

But I don’t believe that he is tuned in to the level in our political life where the most important political battle is being waged.

The evidence of American history since the turn of the millennium suggests to me that being right on the issues is insufficient. Those who are right on the issues but neglect the more profound level of the political fight — destructive vs. constructive, lying vs. truth-telling, caring vs. cruel — have limited success at best. (And meanwhile, our democracy is being dismantled, and our cultural integrity degraded.)

In this profound battle, we need to hand as much power as possible to those who are aware of that deeper level, and in whom that battle arouses a moral passion to fight for the soul of our America.

That’s why — though in November I’ll vote for which ever of our Democratic candidates is on the ballot — on June 13, I will vote for Tom Perriello.