In the field of political crisis management, there’s a school of thought that says, simply, “Never resign.” The intensity of scandals fade, attention shifts, and coverage that first appeared on the front page slowly works its way to the middle of the A section. Those who ignore the pressure have a non-zero chance of surviving, and plenty of consultants will encourage politicians to take full advantage of those odds.
As of this morning, this appears to reflect how Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is approaching his current circumstances. That said, as the Washington Post reported overnight, that posture may yet change.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called an unscheduled senior staff meeting Sunday night just before the start of the Super Bowl, as the governor considered resigning after two days of defiance amid a controversy over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook.
People familiar with the meeting said the governor had not reached a decision. It was unclear who was present, but the group included senior staffers of color. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who would become governor if Northam resigned, was not there, the people said.
The meeting came at the end of a dizzying 48-hour period. On Friday afternoon, the public learned of the instantly infamous racist photograph in Northam’s medical-school yearbook. On Friday night, the governor apologized for the photo. On Saturday afternoon, the Virginia Democrat hosted a press conference in which he denied being in the picture, acknowledged a different incident in which he wore blackface, complained about the challenge of removing shoe polish, and briefly considered dancing.
Northam nevertheless said he intended to remain in office.
That was not a popular position. The list of Democratic officials, leaders, and organizations calling for his ouster is overwhelming, creating conditions that the governor is very likely to find unsurvivable.
Indeed, the core challenge facing Northam as he weighs his future is the simple fact that there is no compelling defense.
At issue are racist antics from the 1980s – a point at which decent people everywhere already knew full well never to wear blackface – when the Virginian was an adult. What’s more, Northam has had years to acknowledge this part of his past and own up to it, but he instead hid it, hoping no one would discover the truth.
The result is a man who’s obviously lost the standing necessary to lead.
What’s more, this scandal is about more than just one politician whose career is poised to end in two years anyway (in Virginia, governors are not legally permitted to run for re-election). The longer Northam remains in office, the more he risks hurting his party’s candidates in upcoming elections.
The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer added this morning, “If Northam remains governor, he gives license to any number of future scoundrels to remain in office despite engaging in bigotry against their constituents. There is more at risk here than Northam’s political career.”
The governor is reportedly eager to find out whether he can remain effective. I suspect he’ll soon discover that he cannot.