Arlington, Va. — The breakfasters at Bob and Edith’s Diner are too preoccupied with their tasty bacon and eggs to notice the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Or perhaps, like all Americans who are more sensitive than oysters, they are in the throes of political exhaustion and are trying to ignore this year’s only competitive gubernatorial race. In any case, they seem unaware that the mild-mannered pediatric neurologist in one of the booths — he is wearing a bourgeois disguise: gray suit, maroon tie — supposedly is “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs” involving many Central American immigrants. The U.S. president says so, as does the gubernatorial candidate of his party.
In two weeks, Virginia will have America’s most consequential election since 50 weeks ago. Then, this became the only Southern state Hillary Clinton carried (by five points). Today’s campaign dramatizes the difficult calculation confronting people who want the Republican party restored as a vehicle for conservatism but who know that this requires expunging the political style — exuberantly fact-free accusations and screeds — exemplified by the “MS-13″ tweet.
In 2014, Gillespie — former counselor to President George W. Bush, former Republican National Committee chair, adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign, lobbyist extraordinaire — came within a whisker (under 18,000 votes) of defeating an incumbent U.S. senator, Mark Warner. This year, however, Gillespie barely defeated a full-throated Trumpian in the Republican primary. Gillespie is intelligent, temperate, experienced, and happiest when talking about government policies. These attributes are, in the incandescent eyes of his party’s now-Trumpian base, defects of swamp creatures. So, he is gingerly tiptoeing across the treacherous terrain of Trumpian Republican politics. This involves stoking the anger of those people who seem happiest when furious, but without infuriating everyone else.
He did the former with dishonest MS-13 ads featuring tattooed dark-skinned men (“Kill, rape, control.”) and accusing Northam of refusing to crack down on “sanctuary cities,” of which Virginia has none. Gillespie’s admirers say he is better than he sounds. Others, remembering Mark Twain (who popularized the quip “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”), say that in democratic politics — the politics of persuasive rhetoric — a candidate is the way he chooses to sound.
A Gillespie win on November 7 would be a double victory for Republicans. They would control another swing state’s governor’s mansion in 2020. And it might send the Sanders–Warren true believers careening off on a “We told you so!” rampage, arguing — convincingly only to other believers — that Virginians chose a conservative Republican because Northam, although progressive, was insufficiently so. Then they could continue making “single-payer” (government-dispensed) health care progressivism’s central promise to a nation in which 157 million people happily get their health-care plans from their employers.
So, if Gillespie wins, Republicans elsewhere will conclude that the derangement of their party does not hinder its prospering. If the Democrat wins, many progressives will be secretly as unhappy as the Trumpians who, like those progressives, will argue that their man lost because he was inconsistently and insincerely enthusiastic about his party’s most off-putting faction.
– George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is [email protected]. © 2017 Washington Post Writers Group.