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Glenn Youngkin Is a Coward

The Virginia governor may be a ‘newcomer to politics,’ but he’s already a master of the art of misdirection.
by Jim Swift
July 12, 2022
Glenn Youngkin Is a Coward
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin head a round table meeting with parents and two of this secretaries at a Safeway grocery store in Alexandria, VA on February 3, 2022. (Photo by Robb Hill for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Glenn Youngkin, just half a year into his term as governor of Virginia, already aspires to an even higher office—not just because he’s an ambitious politician, but also because he’ll be out of a job otherwise. After defeating Terry McAuliffe in last fall’s gubernatorial election, Youngkin now has one eye on his desk calendar because governors are term-limited in Virginia: The state constitution stipulates that governors can’t run for consecutive re-election.

Those who conceived of the 1830 provision probably didn’t imagine that one consequence would be turning the job of the state’s chief executive into a springboard to federal office, which is how it ends up functioning for candidates like Youngkin. Assuming office a year after the president does, the governor of Virginia can spend the entirety of his term running for president. And if that doesn’t work out for Youngkin, he could still run against Tim Kaine for a seat in the Senate in 2024.

He’s already running for one or both of these jobs—not officially, of course, but there are tells. The main one is that he’s refusing to directly answer tough questions if doing so might entail negative consequences.

On Face the Nation last weekend, interviewer Robert Costa described Youngkin as a “newcomer to politics.” For being a newcomer, the governor has demonstrated quite a proficiency with skills your average pol requires years to refine—hemming, hawing, and misdirecting, especially.

He’s so convincing that some commentators—even a few in the Never Trump camp—have pushed him as a solution to Trumpism and drawn comparisons with Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and Larry Hogan. They consider Youngkin to be the sort of candidate we should all hope to see more of in the post-Trump future.


There are two points to make in response to this idea: First, his success isn’t repeatable. Second, the man has principles only when it’s convenient for him.

We must remember that Glenn Youngkin became governor not through a strong connection with voters and not through core values. He can instead attribute his success to a sham primary convention rigged in his favor, which was followed by a general election where he faced an unpopular opponent with a penchant for contest-altering gaffes.

Even if you sincerely believe Republicans need to run more candidates like Youngkin, his path to office is simply not one that can be replicated in other contests: The state party designed a Rube Goldberg party exercise to effectively coronate him while denying state senator and hardcore Trumpist Amanda Chase their nomination because they felt they couldn’t trust primary voters to pick someone who isn’t nuts.

But after the convention, Youngkin had to court the voters the state party didn’t trust to choose him over the MAGA warrior, and this required him to play footsie with election truthers. This is the second reason no one should hope for more Youngkins in Republican primary contests going forward: He had trouble telling voters the simple truth that Biden won against Trump in 2020 and the election wasn’t stolen. Why have principles if you don’t intend to stick to them?

But back to that Face the Nation interview. A month before Youngkin’s election, I wrote in these pages:

He keeps silent on questions about Donald Trump, democracy, or January 6 as long as possible. Then he winks and nods to the deeply conspiratorial far-right voters in his base. Then he walks back these gestures with mealy-mouthed half-answers. And then he blames the media.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

​And on Face the Nation last weekend, we saw Youngkin attempt this play on the field once again. His execution was clumsy. As our colleague Will Saletan wryly summarized:

At every juncture on the road to Richmond, Youngkin coddled election truthers as long as he could, each time holding out until he was forced to admit reality.

Here was Robert Costa’s question: “You have also said President Biden was legitimately elected. Former President Trump continues to falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen. Should he stop saying that?”

Youngkin refused to directly answer this question four times and eventually forced Costa to move on to other topics. He knows that the first 2024 GOP presidential hopeful to tell Trump to cut it out will be kaput. Message discipline and cowardice can sometimes be hard to distinguish.

It is good to remember the stakes here. One of Youngkin’s rambling non-answers touched on his speech at the Nebraska GOP convention. What happened at that event is a good reminder of what sorts of forces Youngkin’s party is attempting to keep under control: It devolved into a shitshow of firings and fights, with at least one delegate being arrested on assault charges.

If the past is a reliable guide, Youngkin will eventually manage to utter the truth, but only when he feels it is safe to do so. A profile in courage he is not—and unfortunately, courage is just what’s needed when facing today’s MAGAfied GOP.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.