Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin at the first debate in Grundy. Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

The more Terry McAuliffe debates Glenn Youngkin, the better Youngkin looks.

McAuliffe may well be right on all the issues – that’s a matter of personal taste. Stylistically, though, Youngkin comes across as a mild-mannered fellow who seems, well, kind of a normal Republican.

McAuliffe has staked much of his campaign on depicting Younkin as, in his words, “a Trump wanna-be.” Given the state of the Republican Party these days, that’s a reasonable charge to level against any of the party’s nominees. The problem is, when voters actually see Youngkin – as they have in the past two debates – he doesn’t live up (or down) to that billing.

On the contrary, Youngkin seems lots of things that Trump is not – even-tempered, conciliatory, and, in Tuesday night’s debate sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, welcoming of Muslim refugees from Afghanistan.

The more McAuliffe harped on how Youngkin was trying to emulate Trump, the more wrong McAuliffe looked. Again, McAuliffe may be right and Youngkin wrong on the issues, but McAuliffe’s attempt to make voters afraid of Youngkin simply doesn’t work very well. The polls were showing that before Tuesday night’s debate and I didn’t see anything during that debate that would change the general direction of the campaign one way or another.

Maybe Youngkin is running a grand charade – that’s certainly been known to happen before – but it’s hard to picture the former co-CEO of the world’s second-largest private equity firm as a crude xenophobe, which is essentially what Trump was. More likely, Youngkin is a normal, pre-Trump Republican who is trying to navigate a new political era where far too many Republicans are in thrall to a dangerous personality cult. So far, Youngkin seems to be doing a pretty good job of that navigation.

McAuliffe tried Tuesday to portray Youngkin as someone who would essentially surrender to the COVID-19 virus. Maybe he will. It’s hard to tell what Youngkin would actually do; debates are typically a poor way to learn about how candidates will actually apply policy, and Tuesday’s debate was no different. But the more McAuliffe talked about Youngkin making anti-vax statements on “right-wing radio” – one of McAuliffe’s favorite phrases – the more it gave Youngkin an opportunity to make a pretty impassioned plea for people to get vaccinated. Again and again and again. “I believe everyone should get the vaccine . . . I believe the vaccine absolutely saves lives . . . I do believe the COVID vaccine is one everyone should get.”

We certainly never heard Trump say things like that.

Heck, you could cut a health department public service announcement from all the times Youngkin endorsed vaccinations.

None of that really addresses the troublesome details of how we actually stop the spread of the virus – should students be masked? Should teachers be vaccinated? – but it sure didn’t make Youngkin sound like the crazed anti-vaxxer that McAuliffe was trying to make him out to be.

Youngkin refuses to fit the caricature that Democrats would like him to be. The reality is he’s something of a cipher – we’ve never had a gubernatorial nominee in modern times with such a blank slate – but, in terms of manner and presentation, he seems quite in keeping with what Republicans used to be. He seems – dare I say it? – a younger version of George H.W. Bush.

If you’re a Democrat, that’s still reason enough to vote against him. If you’re a Republican, all you probably need to know is that he’s not a Democrat. If you’re one of the few voters in between, well, those voters probably weren’t watching C-SPAN last night anyway, although if any were, they might well think Youngkin’s proposal to offer tax rebates and eliminate the state tax on groceries are pretty good ideas. (Historical irony: The latter was always the calling card of the late liberal populist, Henry Howell. Somehow Democrats have fumbled that issue over to the Republicans).

There’s much we don’t know about Youngkin. We still don’t know exactly what abortion restrictions Youngkin would be willing to sign into law or what gun restrictions he would allow to be loosened. Then again, there are still things about McAuliffe we don’t know, despite having seen him in action for four years already. Youngkin tried to pin McAuliffe down Tuesday on whether he’d allow the state’s anti-union right-to-work law to be repealed. McAuliffe said it was unlikely such a bill would ever pass the legislature. Actually, given the sensibilities of today’s Democratic Party, it’s entirely possible we might see such a bill passed. But let’s face it; not many voters this November are going to go to the polls with such policy nuances in mind.

Tuesday’s debate saw both candidates make unrealistic promises. Ideally, voters have long since learned to ignore such things. Youngkin promised how on “day one” he’d cut taxes. Not to be technical, but the General Assembly would have to pass a bill first. Let’s assume he gets elected and brings in a Republican House of Delegates with him. He’d still have to deal with a state Senate that’s 21-19 Democratic. Would his tax cut plan win over two Democratic senators? (Or one, if there’s a Republican lieutenant governor to break a tie?)

Youngkin also talked about how he’ll invest in “a broken mental health system” and “school facilities.” And where, exactly, will the money for all that come from if he’s reducing state revenues by cutting taxes? (The Republican answer, of course, would be that tax cuts would increase revenues by spurring economic growth. Still, it’s hard to believe that Republicans are temperamentally inclined to both cut taxes and raise spending at the same time.)

McAuliffe, for his part, talked about how he’ll “invest” $2 billion more in schools. At one point, Youngkin totalled up the price of all McAuliffe’s plans to some humongous figure. That figure might actually be frightening – but first you’d have to believe all those things will really happen, which no one should.

We may have gotten our best insight into Youngkin when he claimed that Ford Motor Company bypassed Virginia to build new plants in Kentucky and Tennessee because company officials are worried that the state’s electric grid will be unreliable because of the renewable energy mandates under the state’s Clean Economy Act. Is that so? I have no idea but it’s a very Republican thing to worry about those mandates more than they worry about increased carbon levels in the atmosphere. (For the record, Ford said it chose those states because energy costs were lower – and also because the states were less likely to face severe weather disruptions such as hurricanes and floods.)

Meanwhile, McAuliffe raised a point that has more validity than some Republicans might care to admit. He warned that businesses will be scared away if Republicans enact a social conservative agenda. “The businesses I brought to Virginia – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft – they’re not going to a state that discriminates against women.” The reality is we have seen some businesses make decisions based on a state’s social policy. Every business is different but some care far more about taxes than Democrats care to admit and some care more about social policy than Republicans do. Youngkin portrays himself as a traditional business-friendly Republican, but has the nature of business changed more than even he realizes?

All I know is that this was a close race going into Tuesday’s debate and I saw nothing to change that. If anything, I saw McAuliffe’s job get a lot harder.  

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...