April 14, 2024

It’s a matter of taste, to be sure, but many people do not find Youngkin painful. His approval ratings among Virginians is at 58 percent, according to a recent Roanoke College poll. Those who recoil at his rhetorical contradictions and the evident calculation behind them are heavily concentrated here around the state capitol: Legislators who resent what they regard as his unseemly haste in pursuing national ambitions, or local reporters stiffed by a governor who doesn’t much care about their questions.

When politicians can play both ends of the keyboard — sounding notes of grievance and aspiration with equal fluency — they often go far. This spring will likely force a decision by Youngkin about how far, and how fast, he wants to try to go. Should he run for president, even as he was only elected governor, his first foray into politics, less than a year and a half ago?

The reasons to be skeptical are fairly simple. The Republican donor and operative class that wants to put Trump out of their misery for good — the people Youngkin will need if he runs — are worried that the field of candidates will grow too large, dividing the anti-Trump vote. Youngkin’s biography, a wealthy private-equity executive known for his earnest religiosity, conveys a superficial resemblance to Mitt Romney. The 2012 nominee was an establishment natural and may have won some suburban independents that Donald Trump never could — but hardly enough to compensate for his lack of populist energy.

The reasons Youngkin could win over the voters Romney could not — and be an intriguing addition to the field — are more complex. Republicans are divided over the question of division. Do people want an end to the politics of conflict and bombast represented by Trump and his one-time protégé, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis? Or is exploiting the alleged cultural and ideological excesses of the Democratic left the path to defeating President Joe Biden? Youngkin’s potential appeal is that it isn’t necessary to decide — just say yes to both questions.

At first blush, Youngkin attracted national notice for one main reason: He showed that he could harness the coalition of voters who like Donald Trump without having his own reputation and candidacy be hijacked by the former president. His success seemed fueled in significant measure by the national political climate and the self-inflicted wounds of his normally skilled opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

At second blush, it seems clear that Youngkin’s ascent owes to more than a flukish convergence of circumstances. In terms of political skills, he is plainly as talented as other Republicans hoping to halt Trump’s return as the party’s nominee next year — but talented in different ways. Near-term, Youngkin has many obstacles. If he surmounted them on the way to the GOP nomination, the McAuliffe experience leaves little doubt he would be a formidable opponent to President Joseph Biden or another Democratic nominee.

The contrast with DeSantis is telling. The Florida governor’s ascent has been powered in large measure by his zeal at cultural and ideological scab-picking, such as his battles with the Walt Disney Company over the state’s bill banning public schools from discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity before fourth grade. The appeal is essentially Trumpism without Trump.

Youngkin, too, regularly wades into the cultural politics swirling around public education, including such topics as whether schools teach racial history. He’s scored local high schools in Northern Virginia for being slow to tell students they won merit scholarship awards, allegedly because school officials thought these violated principles of equity. During his election, he went to battle with school officials in Loudoun County for their handling of sexual assault on a student in a girl’s bathroom by a male classmate wearing a skirt. Like DeSantis, he often goes on favored platforms like Fox News to talk about these issues.

Unlike DeSantis, however, he also pivots at other moments to sound like a Republican version of Bill Clinton’s 1990s centrism. He says the GOP must avoid exclusionary rhetoric and ideological litmus tests. “What I’d seen in Virginia, and I think I see across this nation, is we in fact have to bring people into the Republican Party, we have to be additive, not [rely on] subtraction.” (For more from the Youngkin interview, see my colleague Daniel Lippman’s report.)

In an age when many politicians emphasize mobilization — firing up voters who are already natural supporters with grievance-based appeals — Youngkin said his experience shows politicians must also revive the art of persuasion.

Virginia is a state where most statewide races trended Democratic in recent years. “People thought it was purple,” Youngkin said, but in fact “it was pretty darn blue. … It required us to, yes, bring new people in, to persuade a number of folks who might not have ever voted for a Republican in their lives.”

The reality is that Youngkin is less an updated version of Mitt Romney than he is of someone who actually became president, George W. Bush. Apparently by chance rather than design, what Youngkin articulates is something very much like “compassionate conservatism,” the credo that got Bush elected in 2000 and then went into retreat as he became a war president after 9/11 and the Iraq War. That is reflected in Youngkin’s prominent advocacy of improved state mental health services — “Nobody has been spared this crisis” — and a state partnership with the impoverished and predominantly Black city of Petersburg, just south of the capital.

Like Bush early in his national career, Youngkin combines the background of a wealthy elite with an affable jockish sensibility — Youngkin played Division I basketball at Rice — that helps with populist messaging. As with Bush, his political persona is intertwined with a plainly sincere if showy religiosity. “Can I say grace real quick?” he asked during a recent interview. Assured by his more secular visitors this was fine, he spoke aloud a minute-long prayer to the Heavenly Father, thanking him for the meal of fried chicken tacos and seeking his blessing for the “General Assembly members and the work we are about to do.”

As he ponders a presidential run, Youngkin presumably is seeking guidance from a higher power than political journalists. Even so, the political press has an obvious interest in his answer: A Youngkin candidacy would be an entertaining addition to the 2024 race. And it would test the hypothesis that there is a future for a brand of GOP politics that lies somewhere between the nihilism of Trumpism and the pallor of Romneyism.