The Democrats’ Dilema

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Woodrow Wilson is alleged to have once said that one must never try to murder someone who’s committing suicide.  As Democrats try to make sense of the Virginia Democratic meltdown, Republicans should follow Wilson’s advice and stand on the sidelines as the Democrats grapple with the dilemmas they’ve created for themselves.

The Democratic meltdown began when a right wing website revealed that a medical school yearbook included a racist photograph of a man in blackface next to a man in Ku Klux Klan robes on a page dedicated to Ralph Northam, an alumnus and the current governor of Virginia.  He promptly offered an abject apology and pledged himself to work harder for racial reconciliation.

This was not enough for Democrats either in Virginia or among the party’s candidates running for president.  Almost to a man—and woman—they demanded his resignation (President Trump also felt the need to intervene, offering his opinion that Northam’s apparent posing for, and inclusion of, the photo was “unforgivable;” really—he should butt out, sit back, and let the Democrats stew in their own juices).

The feeding frenzy intensified when Governor Northam then announced that he wasn’t certain that he was in the photo, and subsequently flatly denied he was in it and that he wasn’t going to resign.  A bizarre news conference succeeded only in making him look impossibly foolish.  

Democrats thought they had the luxury of dumping Northam because under the Virginia Constitution, the first official in the line of succession was Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, a Democrat and an African American.  Getting rid of Northam and installing an African American as governor seemed the ideal way to simultaneously rid Virginia of a governor who had become a colossal embarrassment, keep the governorship in Democratic hands, and soothe Africans justifiably outraged at the racist photo.

But then two women—a California college professor (sound familiar?) and someone who had been an undergraduate with Fairfax—came forward to say that he had sexually assaulted them years ago.  Should he be allowed to become governor after all?  

And for good measure, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, also a Democrat and second in the line of succession after the Lieutenant Governor, confessed that he too had once worn blackface for a costume party.  He had been among the numerous Democrats who had demanded Northam’s resignation.  If Northam is forced to go, shouldn’t Herring go too?

But complicating everything is the fact that third in the line of succession is the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, one Kirk Cox—a Republican.  In other words, if the Democrats get rid of Northam and Fairfax and Herring, they’re turning the governorship over to the Republicans.

So here are the Democrats’ dilemmas:  One could argue that perhaps Northam and Herring should have been forgiven their stupid indiscretions committed more than three decades ago.  To insist on their removal for once wearing blackface is to set an incredibly high and inflexible standard for judging those in politics or who want to be in politics.  After all, who among us has not done at least one stupid thing that would embarrass us today if revealed.   

But to back off demands for their resignations now would mean that Democrats would be supporting the retention in office of a complete fool and an utter hypocrite.  Moreover, they can be credibly accused of being more concerned with keeping the governorship in Democratic hands than with the feelings of African Americans, their most loyal supporters.

But the Democrats’ most serious dilemma involves what to do about Justin Fairfax.  He is accused not of acting like an idiot but of actually committing serious crimes which hurt two women.  But he hasn’t been convicted of anything.  So if Democrats force him from office, they run the risk of not only alienating African American voters, but of strengthening their reputation for being against due process.  After all, shouldn’t Justin Fairfax be considered innocent until proven guilty?

Yet if they extend to him the presumption of innocence and allow him to either remain as Lieutenant Governor or become Governor should Northam resign or be removed, they open themselves to the accusation that they’re against sexual assault only if the accused is a Republican, like Brett Kavanaugh, but will tolerate sexual assault if committed by a Democrat, especially to retain party control of the governorship.  Moreover, they run the risk of alienating Democratic women.

How the Democrats in Virginia and in the presidential race will resolve these dilemmas remains to be seen.  But by claiming that racist acts are unforgiveable no matter how long ago they were committed, and no matter how thoroughly they’ve been atoned for, and by proclaiming that mere accusations of sexual assault justify the destruction of careers and reputations, they have nobody but themselves to blame for the ugly situation in which they now find themselves.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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