Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin was in Nebraska over the weekend for an appearance that, in the words of the Nebraska Examiner, was “close enough to Iowa that Fox News and the Washington Post wrote about a potential White House bid.”

I wrote recently about the pros and cons of Youngkin (or any sitting Virginia governor, for that matter) seeking the presidency. The short version on that: The calendar isn’t helpful because a Virginia governor with presidential ambitions has to start running almost as soon as he or she takes office, and the only other time that happened, Virginians weren’t very pleased that their chief executive was out flitting around the country and not tending to the job here at home. Douglas Wilder’s approval ratings cratered during his brief presidential run in 1991-92 and improved once he quit the race (but never returned to what they had been).

Nonetheless, no less than Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty (not exactly someone sympathetic to Youngkin when he ran for his present post) has touted him as an alternative to Donald Trump. When I mentioned this, I heard from some on the left who felt anyone who wrote such a thing is being snookered. Their view: Youngkin is no different from Trump.

At the risk of sounding like a Youngkin publicist (which I’m very much not), I respectfully disagree. I think those who see Youngkin as being Trump-in-a-fleece-vest have become so disoriented by Trump (understandably so) that they have lost their sense of perspective and forgotten what a normal Republican looks like. Full disclosure: I think Trump was and is a clear and present danger to American democracy, while I see Youngkin being very much in the tradition of a pre-Trumpian Republican Party. That’s not to say I endorse his agenda but I think it’s important to be able to distinguish nuance.

Here’s why I say this. Let’s look at Trump’s essential attributes and see how Youngkin compares.

  1. Trump was crude and vulgar. For some, that was part of his appeal. He said the things that previously were unsaid. Youngkin is, by all accounts, affable and congenial. Now, there are those who might say not all of his positions are congenial, but that’s a different matter. I think tone matters. I also fear that our society is so close to the breaking point that tone matters even more. I understand that politics is about competition – competition between ideas, between parties – but I think that those who in these times take a confrontational stance risk taking the country to a dark place that we don’t want to go. Now, that said, Youngkin may not be as congenial as he always appears. He vetoed a bunch of bills from state Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who had led the Democratic opposition to one of Youngkin’s appointees. At the time, Youngkin said he merely vetoed those Senate bills because they were duplicates of identical House bills. Historically, governors have signed both, but Youngkin didn’t. However, I notice that when both the House and Senate passed identical bills related to moving the Augusta County Courthouse – one from Del. John Avioli, R-Staunton, and one from state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County – he signed both. However, there’s a difference between the sharp elbows of politics – a basketball metaphor that Youngkin ought to like – and Trump’s routine crudity and vulgarity. One might merit a foul, the other an ejection.
  2. Trump was a xenophobe. His policies on immigration and refugees were both inflammatory and numerically wrong. As I’ve written about before, we need more younger workers – immigration is a good way to solve this demographic problem. Put another way, we need more immigrants, not fewer. Yes, yes, we need border security, too. We can’t just have people walk across the border. But more border security and pro-immigration policies shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Now, as governor, Youngkin has nothing to do with immigration policy but he certainly hasn’t adopted Trump’s aggressively anti-immigration tone – there’s that word again. On the contrary, in one of last fall’s gubernatorial debates, he seemed quite welcoming of Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan – which certainly sets him apart from, say, Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, who didn’t think we should accept them at all because of their faith. (I wrote that we missed an opportunity by not encouraging more of those Afghan refugees to settle in Southwest and Southside; their numbers would sure help counties that are losing population.)
  3. Trump was an authoritarian at heart. Youngkin seems perfectly content to govern within democratic norms. Sure, maybe he tested the boundaries when he tried to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but you can argue that Barack Obama did, too – the U.S. Supreme Court recently curtailed executive action on some environmental regulations. All those seem the normal sorts of push-and-pull that chief executives experience. You can even argue that Youngkin was pretty compliant during the recent General Assembly negotiations over the budget. He sent down some amendments but avoided a major confrontation. For instance, he could have made a show of vetoing the whole budget and insisting the entire state tax on food be abolished now – that’s what he campaigned on. Instead, he settled for what he could get and said he’d be back next time for the rest. That seems pretty practical governance.

Now, none of this is to say that Youngkin is right on the issues. That’s a matter of political taste. The point is that his political style is quite different from Trump’s and, yes, style matters. All the things that Youngkin has done that outrage Democrats most are things that I can easily envision any of the last three Republican governors (Bob McDonnell, Jim Gilmore, George Allen) doing. Youngkin drew Democratic opposition when he tried to appoint Trump’s former Environmental Protection Agency administrator as Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources. But Allen sparked controversy when he named former Reagan appointee Becky Norton Dunlap to the same post in the 1990s. You can debate the records of both, but, big picture, I’m not seeing anything new. If Democrats didn’t want a former coal lobbyist in charge of Virginia’s environment, they should have won the election. They didn’t, but they did manage to block Andrew Wheeler’s appointment.

The website Salon earlier this year ran a story headlined “There are no moderate Republicans” and used Youngkin as one of their examples. Salon is probably right. Moderate Republicans seem extinct, or nearly so. I certainly wouldn’t call Youngkin a moderate but I don’t see him as a Trumpist, either. He seems a pretty normal Republican to me – the type of Republican who fits comfortably in that line from Allen to Gilmore to McDonnell, none of whom were moderates, either. Salon went on to say that Youngkin “ran as an approximate moderate and kept his distance from Trump.” Those are two different things. Youngkin did keep his distance from Trump but I dispute the notion that he ran as “an approximate moderate.” Youngkin’s conservatism seemed on full display throughout the campaign. The biggest thing he’s done to surprise me as governor is that he’s endorsed Virginia trying to enable a stadium for the Washington Commanders. (That’s another thing he has in common with Wilder. Wilder tried to get a Virginia stadium for the Washington team and that didn’t work out, either.) We certainly shouldn’t be surprised by Youngkin’s support for an abortion ban at 15 weeks; it’s also fair to ask what kind of restrictions he’d support if voters install a Republican majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, a question so far he hasn’t seemed inclined to answer, perhaps for the obvious political reasons. However, there were plenty of socially conservative Republicans who wanted a total ban on abortion long before Trump came on the scene – and will continue to do so after Trump departs. The question isn’t whether Youngkin is socially conservative (he is) but whether he is a Trumpist. We ought to be sophisticated enough to see the difference, even if some people don’t like either variety of Republican.

Now, Youngkin hasn’t gone full Liz Cheney and denounced Trump as a potential autocrat who wanted to lead an armed mob on the Capitol to overturn election returns he didn’t like. Personally, I wish every Republican would join her – the health of the republic seems to demand it. But I also understand the political pressures from Trump’s cult-like base. I get the sense that a lot of Republicans who know better just hope Trump fades away and we can return to something close to normal. Whether that’s wise or naive, someday we’ll know. For now, Youngkin seems to me the type of Republican we’d have gotten if Trump had never happened. (If you’re a Democrat, that’s still objectionable enough, of course.)

It’s also useful to know something about the context of the Nebraska Republican Party that Youngkin spoke to over the weekend. Nebraska Republicans just went through a bitter primary for governor in which the candidate endorsed by Trump – Charles Herbster – lost. Herbster also has yet to endorse the winner, Jim Pillen. Part of what Youngkin did in Omaha was headline a fundraiser for Pillen. Read into that whatever you like but Youngkin sure hasn’t thrown in his lot with the Trump wing of the party. However, that wing of the party continues to exercise a lot of power.

Youngkin’s soothing, generic words also came against a backdrop of what Nebraska news media called a “turbulent” convention. Last week, the party revoked the credentials of six convention delegates because, according to the Omaha World-Herald, “they had spoken out against Republican leadership or nominees” When one of those delegates showed up anyway, “he was grabbed by a security guard who didn’t identify himself, to which [the uncredentialed delegate] allegedly reacted violently,” according to Nebraska.TV. The Omaha World-Herald says that delegate was arrested “on suspicion of third-degree assault and second-degree trespassing.” At the convention, the Trumpist faction took charge – reinstated that delegate’s credentials and then fired the party chairman who was seen as too identified with the party’s establishment nominee. Nebraska Republicans, it seems, have a gubernatorial nominee favored by traditionalists, but a party convention and party chairman more in line with Trumpists. As I read accounts in the Nebraska news media, I notice that virtually all the coverage was about the convention turmoil, not about what Youngkin had to say. We in Virginia may be paying more attention to that than Nebraska Republicans did. 

I don’t pretend to understand all the passions that are roiling Nebraska Republicans, but it does seem useful to know that Youngkin wasn’t there to stir them further. That doesn’t mean he’s right on any issue — again, a matter of taste — but it does suggest he’s sure not Trump.

Dwayne Yancey

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