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Yes, Virginia: Politics Can Still Be Civil in the Trump Era

The Virginia gubernatorial debate showed that candidates can still disagree without insults and name-calling.
Image: Virginia Governor's Debate
In this frame grab, Republican Ed Gillespie (L) debates Democrat Ralph Northam on September 19, 2017 for the Virginia governor's race in Virginia.NBC News

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

MCLEAN, Va. — If you thought the Trump Era has changed every aspect of American politics, last night’s gubernatorial debate between Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam — moderated by one of us — was a reminder how candidates can still disagree without insults and name-calling.

There were no comments about hand size, no disparaging nicknames and no taunts. Instead, Gillespie and Northam sparred over the economy, health care, Confederate monuments and, yes, President Trump.

Politico called the debate a “gentlemanly exchange” that “contained few personal attacks and plenty of policy contrast on economic development, health care and immigration.” The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato tweeted, “I've watched every VA GOV debate since 1981 start. Never have 2 nominees been so respectful. They barely raised their voices.”

Indeed, both Gillespie and Northam are throwbacks to an earlier political era – Gillespie is a former Bush White House aide who’s pushing an across-the-board tax cut; Northam is a Democrat with a drawl.

This brand of politics can be just as competitive and contentious as the politics we’ve seen over the last two years. But it has something our current politics are lacking — civility.

And last night’s civility didn’t take place in a vacuum: Both Gillespie and Northam acted like politicians who felt that Virginia voters, especially those in blue Northern Virginia, would punish them for behaving badly.

Highlights of last night’s Gillespie-vs.-Northam debate

Here are some of the exchanges, per MSNBC’s Adam Noboa:

On Confederate monuments

Gillespie: “Virginia and Virginians have always been at the forefront of American history from our very founding, literally, at Jamestown. That doesn't mean we've always been on the right side of history. If you are on the side of preserving the institution – the evil institution of slavery – you are on the wrong side of history. But our history is our history, and I believe we need to educate about it and we need to teach about it.”Northam: “If these statues give white supremacists like that an excuse to do what they did, we need to have a discussion about the statues. That's what I have said personally. I would think that the statues would be better placed in museums with certain historical context but I am leaving that up to the localities.”

On Trump

Northam: “There are some things, Chuck, that bother me that are very detrimental to the Commonwealth of Virginia. First was the travel ban that did nothing more than promote fear-mongering. My opponent supported the travel ban... And now we have DACA where he is talking about sending children that are here in this country at no fault of their own. Sending them out of the country and I am sure Ed would follow right in line with that as well. Pulling away from the Paris accord, which I mentioned earlier… And then finally now health care.”Gillespie on whether he’ll accept campaign help from Trump: “What I have said, and what I will continue to say, is I will take help from anybody, anywhere. This is going to be a very close race… Look I could stand up here and I could say he's Nancy Pelosi, and he can say I’m Donald Trump and we can have that debate. That's not going to get one more job created in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

On Graham-Cassidy

Gillespie: “Virginia cannot be punished in any legislation for not being an expansion state and for being fiscally prudent with our Medicaid dollars and in my view Graham/Cassidy falls short of that.” (But as NBC’s Kailani Koenig reports, Gillespie muddled his position after the debate, telling reporters: “I’m not endorsing or opposing any specific legislation.”)

Trump’s selective view of sovereignty

Speaking of political name-calling, there was plenty of focus on President Trump’s comments aimed at North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in his address to the United Nations yesterday. "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” Trump said, adding: "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."

But maybe the most striking part of Trump’s speech was his talk about sovereignty. “Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect,” Trump said.

But: “Mr. Trump offered the General Assembly a strikingly selective definition of sovereignty, threatening to act aggressively against countries like North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, whose policies he opposes, yet saying almost nothing about Russia, which seized territory from its neighbor Ukraine, and meddled in the American presidential election,” the New York Times writes.

Bottom line: Trump’s speech moved away from the Western worldview and more to Russia’s and China’s worldview. Indeed, the ONLY mention of Russia in Trump’s speech was thanking it and China for voting to impose sanctions on North Korea.

All eyes on Lisa Murkowski

With Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a hard “no” on the Graham-Cassidy legislation, and with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a very likely no-vote as well, the bill’s fate hinges on Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Here’s what Murkowski said yesterday when asked how she could vote against the other GOP repeal-and-replace bills, but possibly vote for Graham-Cassidy, per NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell:

“The problem last time was process and substance. Nobody knew what we were really looking to and voting on. So again where I have asked questions about process and I have looked to substance. I’m still looking for the data that walks me through how Alaska actually does. My governor has said, ‘Hey, I like flexibility, but if I get half as much money, flexibility doesn’t help me.’”

She continued, “So in fairness to my governor, and in fairness to Alaskans, the numbers actually matter. And so if it can be shown that Alaska is not going to be disadvantaged, we gain additional flexibility, then I can go back to Alaskans and say, ‘OK, let’s walk through this together.’ That’s where it could be different, but I don’t have that right now.”

Jimmy Kimmel slams Graham-Cassidy

But if Graham-Cassidy had momentum, late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel halted that last night.

“Jimmy Kimmel railed against a new Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, this time calling one senator a liar for claiming that he supported a health care bill that guaranteed coverage for all families,” Variety writes. “The senator, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, has been saying that any type of health care plan had to pass what he called the ‘Jimmy Kimmel test.’”

“But in his monologue on Tuesday, Kimmel said that Cassidy ‘wasn't very honest,’ pointing to the legislation that Cassidy co-authored with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. ‘I don't know what happened to Bill Cassidy,’ Kimmel said. ‘But when he was on this publicity tour, he listed his demands for a health-care bill very clearly. These were his words. He said he wants coverage for all, no discrimination based on preexisting conditions, lower premiums for middle-class families and no lifetime caps. Guess what? The new bill does none of those things."

Cassidy issued this statement in response, per NBC’s Frank Thorp: "We have a September 30th deadline on our promise. Let’s finish the job. We must because there is a mother and father whose child will have insurance because of Graham Cassidy Heller Johnson. There is someone whose pre-existing condition will be addressed because of GCHJ. I dedicated my medical career to care for such as these; this is why GCHJ must pass."

Fly like a G6: HHS Secretary Price takes private jets instead of commercial travel

Finally, on the topic of "Things that would have been a weeklong story for any other administration," is this Politico story: “In a sharp departure from his predecessors, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price last week took private jets on five separate flights for official business, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars more than commercial travel… Price, a frequent critic of federal spending who has been developing a plan for department-wide cost savings, declined to comment. HHS spokespeople declined to confirm details of the flights, or respond to questions about who paid for them, with a spokesperson only saying that Price sometimes charters planes when commercial flights aren’t feasible… Price’s spokespeople declined to comment on why he considered commercial travel to be unfeasible. On one leg of the trip – a sprint from Dulles International Airport to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 135 miles – there was a commercial flight that departed at roughly the same time: Price’s charter left Dulles at 8:27 a.m., and a United Airlines flight departed for Philadelphia at 8:22 a.m., according to airport records.”