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‘He’s done a great job’: Youngkin praises would-be rivals

Any criticism at all of those tumultuous Trump years? “Well, I think what you say and how you say it,” Youngkin offered delicately. “I think there is a chance to disagree with people without being disagreeable. I don’t call people names. [Avoiding insults] is just one of the things I believe is appropriate. We just have different styles.”

In an age of snarling politics, Youngkin is trying to decide if the 2024 field has room for a different style. While he draws a contrast with Trump, Youngkin shot to national prominence in GOP circles largely on the strength of his deft handling of Trump in his 2021 victory. He gained the former president’s support — and won handily in Trump-backing precincts—but effectively rebuffed Democratic efforts to tie him closely to the former president. Youngkin, a wealthy former private-equity executive and political novice, beat former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who had been a well-known national Democrat for 25 years.

Now, as winter turns to spring, Youngkin is in the midst of a prolonged and even anguished decision-making process about whether the moment is right for a presidential run, according to people close to his deliberations, as well as Virginia and national operatives familiar with his decision-making.

Pushing him forward are the appeals of people who want what they perceive as a winning alternative to Trump and DeSantis — as well as the historical examples of Trump and former president Barack Obama, who showed that this is an era that rewards people who seize their moment rather than devote years to checking traditional boxes.

Holding him back are doubts about whether there is sufficient fluidity in the Republican field to accommodate what would start as a somewhat longshot candidacy. In addition, a presidential flop could mar what has been a strong start to his governorship.

On the day of the Youngkin interview, it was clear from conversations with legislators that many are derisive about his presidential ambitions after a short time in office. Local reporters scoff irritably about his national interviews while being often inaccessible to people covering his official Virginia duties. (Youngkin’s team noted that he’s done more than 100 one-on-one interviews with Virginia outlets.)

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder — a Democrat who says he likes Youngkin personally — recalled the home-state backlash to his own short-lived 1992 campaign. In an interview, he said Youngkin would be making a mistake to run: better to build a local record and bide his time and perhaps be selected as vice presidential nominee or run in 2028.

For now, his interview and travel schedule certainly seems like someone who wants to keep his options open — and is enjoying the attention. In his two years in office, he’s done around 80 national TV interviews, including numerous Sunday shows, and is headlining a number of prominent events in the next few weeks, including the Bush Institute leadership forum in Dallas, the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary summit at Mount Vernon and a speech at the Reagan Library.

Other highlights of the Youngkin interview — conducted over fried chicken tacos at a Main Street diner near the Capitol—included:

— His calculation about running: Unsurprisingly for the politician he’s become, Youngkin called his name being thrown into the mix “a humbling, humbling, humbling conversation” but said his full attention was on Virginia. But implicit in his answer was that by turning a purple state red, he is trying to create a Virginia model for the Republican party to win nationally.

“Virginia is a really good case study on the nation,” he said. “People thought it was purple, it was pretty darn blue. And what it takes is, first of all, a platform that is true to your ideals. You can’t deviate because people know, they can look at you and say, is he really going to do what he said he’s going to do?”

Youngkin implicitly criticized right wing Republican politicians who just play to the base, saying: “What I’d seen in Virginia, and I think I see this across the nation, is we in fact have to bring people into the Republican Party, we have to be additive, not [rely on] subtraction, and we can’t win otherwise.”

— He never expected to run for office in the first place: In a nation that has seen inequality surge in recent years, Youngkin has had a true rags to riches story, going from helping his family out by working as a dishwasher as a 15 year old in Virginia Beach to attending Rice University on a college basketball scholarship to then becoming a captain of finance. “I never dreamed that I would have a chance to take over from the founders of Carlyle and never dreamed I’d be sitting here with you all as the 74th governor of the Commonwealth,” he said.

— The mental health crisis: Youngkin said that no one has been spared from the profound mental health crisis in society that has manifested itself in huge challenges in schools, the workplace and families and marriages. He’s made the issue a top priority of his legislative agenda by asking for more than $230 million as part of a three-year plan for the state’s behavioral health system to try to stem the tide of despair.

“Our mental health crisis that we’re in is more acute than we could possibly ever imagine,” he said somberly. “Because of the base-level issues that we’ve had with the pandemic on top, and then when you marry that with the fact that our behavioral health system is so ill equipped, and I don’t know nationally, but I know Virginia, and we are overwhelmed.”

— The hot-button issue of education: Youngkin said that Republicans aren’t on their back heels anymore when it comes to education since parents want to have a say in their children’s education and are mad that many public schools were closed during much of the Covid pandemic. He said that there’s been “a systematic reduction of expectations” that damaged many students, especially those from minority, poor or immigrant backgrounds.

“Parents stood up for a moment and said, ‘It’s all wrong,’ ” he said. “They were all upset because they had been pushed out of their children’s lives and bureaucrats and politicians had told them ‘we know better, go over there, and we’re not going to let you have a role.’ That was the issue.”

Youngkin said that the infamous comment that his 2021 opponent McAuliffe made during the campaign (“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach kids”) did not surprise him.

“When my opponent said what he said, I wasn’t shocked, because I knew that’s what he believed,” he argued. “But I do believe that many of the independents and the Democrats who had kind of hoped that’s not what they believed, all of a sudden recognize that no, that is what the liberal left wing and the Democrats believe, that they know better than parents. And I do think that that was a very important part of the clarification of our message.”

— Loudoun county sexual assaults: Youngkin drew attention in our interview to the recent sexual assault cases in Loudoun county, where a public school superintendent didn’t tell parents about a male student who had sexually assaulted a young woman and moved the student to another school rather than prosecuting the person. (The student then sexually assaulted another student at the new school.) Youngkin initiated an investigation, which led to a grand jury and an indictment against the superintendent.

“Everybody said that I was fighting the social culture wars,” he said. “Cover ups are not part of what we do in Virginia. … We’re gonna stand up for parents, we’re gonna have transparency, we’re gonna have high expectations, we’re gonna have the best standards in the nation, we’re gonna go from last to first again.”