Glenn Youngkin seems to invite the conversation only to change the topic. Less than a year into one job, the Virginia governor is repeatedly asked if he’d be interested in another. And so, Youngkin has a ready response when asked whether he harbors White House aspirations:
“I am committed to completing our agenda,” he told Ylan Mui of CNBC in September.
“I am so focused right now on being the best governor in Virginia that I can possibly be,” he replied when Jake Tapper of CNN tried in October.
“I am honored by all of this, but I am so focused on being the best governor I can be,” he said during an interview with Northern Virginia Magazine in November.
The answer never varies. Committed, focused, and honored: rote responses, they all blend. On air or in print, the governor always delivers a polite non-answer, then shifts the conversation back to the Commonwealth. But when RealClearPolitics asked a different way, Youngkin gave a different version. First, he laughed.
Who do you plan on supporting for the Republican nomination: Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis? “Why don’t we wait and see everybody who is running in 2024,” Youngkin replied. Then he added, “And by the way, that is a long way off. We will see what happens.”
But the presidential campaign buzz around Youngkin, either fostered or foisted, is real. After a less-than-stellar showing in the midterm elections, Republicans are (again) questioning everything and (again) contemplating a divorce from Donald Trump, their last champion. Plenty in the party are looking to Richmond for an alternative. For now, Youngkin is selling a new budget.
The governor proposed $1 billion worth of tax cuts on Thursday, on top of the $4 billion in cuts he signed into law last year. Ambitious reductions to both personal and corporate rates, if passed, the plan would slash rates for families and businesses alike, while also making $10,000 of military pay deductible for all veterans. All of it, Youngkin explained, stems from the proposition that the government should be “giving back to our stakeholders, our voters, the money they deserve because it is theirs.”
What Youngkin is calling his “accelerator budget” – the idea being that Virginia needs to step things up to stay competitive with other states – also includes new spending priorities. There is spending to invite economic development, a pay bump for teachers, and investments in mental health.
As an economic downturn looms, some in the statehouse are wary. Youngkin counters that the state has a $3.6 billion surplus and says that mechanisms included in his budget predicate a slowdown in some of the cuts if government revenues stall. But he doesn’t see tough times as just a possibility. He expects them: “We're going to have a recession next year,” he says flatly. Unsurprisingly, the Republican governor blames the Democrat currently in the Oval Office.
“What President Biden's administration did was foster unnecessary runaway spending that also undermined our labor participation in an extraordinary way,” Youngkin said. And, “Oh, by the way, let me just say that economists from his own party warned him about this.”
To confront inflation, he added, the Federal Reserve will pick up its “blunt tools,” and "slam the brakes on our economy by raising interest rates in an unprecedented fashion.”
It is a script that plays to the strengths of the former private-equity executive, an opportunity for Youngkin to burnish his fiscal conservative bona fides. “We did not have to be here. Unfortunately, Virginians are going to deal with it,” the Republican added. “We're going to invest through the recession. We can soften the blow by keeping our economy as strong as we can, by fostering a workforce and training people to take great jobs, and by cutting taxes.”
Youngkin laid out that economic vision during his campaign against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but it was the culture wars that defined the final days of that contest. “Extremism can come in many forms,” Biden warned, seeking to tie Youngkin and Trump last November. “It can come in the rage driven to assault the Capitol; it can come in a smile and a fleece vest.” But a critical mass of Virginia voters didn’t listen to the president: They were focused on what seemed like the immoderate impulses in Biden’s own political party, specifically when it came to education policy.
By promising to empower parents in their children’s education, especially when it came to eliminating lesson plans on gender ideology and the question of transgender bathrooms, Youngkin waded into a raging wedge issue on the side of social conservatives.
Loudoun County was the center of a national firestorm last year when an irate father named Scott Smith accused public school officials of covering up his daughter's sexual assault in the girls’ bathroom by a male student wearing a skirt. The perpetrator was transferred to another school where he assaulted a second female student. Before those details were known, viral images of the father growing belligerent at a school board meeting became a prominent symbol of the alleged uptick of far-right violence against teachers. But there was more to this story, as Youngkin guessed correctly. For starters, Loudoun school superintendent Scott Ziegler denied the assaults had taken place and allegedly retaliated against teachers who insisted on transparency.
When the local school board defended the administration, Youngkin regularly blasted the board on the campaign trail. As governor, he authorized the new attorney general to convene a special grand jury to investigate what had actually happened. The grand jury produced a scathing 91-page report documenting Ziegler’s prevarications, which led to his immediate firing. But the grand jury wasn’t done. On Monday, it indicted Ziegler and Loudoun’s school spokesman on charges of making false statements.
Republicans had hoped Virginia would truly be a bellwether in the midterms. Social conservatives saw a ready example in Youngkin and urged congressional candidates to copy-and-paste his playbook. Many did so, but other Republicans proved less adroit than Youngkin at dodging Democrats’ claims of extremism. Certainly not enough to deliver the expected red wave.
Speaking about his campaign specifically, Youngkin says he believes voters, or “stakeholders” as he also calls them, “hired” him because he had a plan. “I was very clear on the things that I was gonna go get done,” he explained, rattling off a list of priorities from “getting this economy moving again” to “standing up for parents and restoring excellence in education.”
Despite Biden’s warning to the contrary, he added, “I don't view that as extreme.” He succeeded on that message in 2021 where others would fail just one year later. For Youngkin, the lessons from those midterms are two-fold.
First, he said, “the people that delivered results for their constituents are the ones who independent voters rewarded.” Second, perhaps with an eye to a future race, he added, “We have got to remember as Republicans to look forward and not backwards.” Then, of course, Youngkin returned the question, as he always does, to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“I think that those are the big lessons of 2022,” he continued. “I look forward to delivering for Virginians because we're looking forward.”