10/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

No, Virginia, This Is Not A "Macaca Moment"

As you may have heard, a recently disclosed college thesis has landed Virginia gubernatorial contender Bob McDonnell in hot water. The thesis in question, titled "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family," is as the Washington Post reported, filled with lots of retrograde thinking. Working women are "detrimental" to families! The government should hold married couples in higher favor than "homosexuals" and "fornicators" and those especially bad "cohabitators"! A Supreme Court decision that legalized contraceptive use for unmarried couples was deemed "illogical"!

Lots of people think that this may prove to be McDonnell's undoing. And lots of those people seem to be working for the Washington Post. Like editorial board member Ruth Marcus, who recently opined:

McDonnell's thesis is a 93-page, 170-footnote "macaca" moment -- and, like that moment, self-inflicted.

That's a pretty good line, all right. And Marcus is correct in pointing out that McDonnell has been fairly inane and pathetic in explaining this away -- he's sought immunity under the "youthful indiscretions" clause of past political idiocy, which sort of elides over the fact that McDonnell was 34 years old at the time he wrote the thesis. But this is not going to be a "macaca" moment, for a number of critical reasons:

Vastly lessened level of surprise.
When news broke that Senator George Allen had used some ornate racial slur on the campaign trail, it caught everyone off guard. What was Allen thinking? What's a macaca? How did any of this come about? No one in the world had ever been confronted with this sort of insanity ever before in their lives. On the other hand, a politician wrote a thesis. This is old hat! And no reporter ever picks up a politician's thesis without hoping to find something career-ending within. In this case, McDonnell's thesis was for Regent University, a Christian-escapist college, founded by Pat Robertson --the school that gave Monica Goodling a law degree! Hmmm...I wonder what sort of ideas end up in Regent's students' theses? To be honest, I don't think you're actually allowed to graduate from there unless you have written a lot of crackpotty things about women and fornicators.

Vastly lessened level of provocation
As bad as this thesis makes McDonnell look, it's still just a paper, rattling around in some college's library. But when George Allen referred to S.R. Sidarth as "macaca," and "welcomed him" to "the real world of Virginia," there was a direct confrontation. There was immediacy. There was an act, directed outward at another person, and an inducement to the crowd to join in. McDonnell's thesis may represent a whole host of bad ideas worming their way around his brain, but they're not going to have the same impact unless and until those ideas manifest themselves in the same immediate, aggressive way.

Vastly lessened level of virality
I think before people start talking about "macaca moments" they need to be certain that they've accounted for the one key ingredient that made it a moment in the first place. In the case of George Allen, his undoing came at the hands of S.R. Siddarth's video camera, the captured moment, and the ensuing viral spread of the clip. The clip of Allen, directing a racial slur at Siddarth, made its way to the Internet and spread across the country like wildfire. As such, it wasn't necessary for political reporters to explain what had happened and then attempt to shape the debate -- the "what happened" was captured in portable content. Virality is the difference between a fast-moving story that disintegrated Allen's electoral hopes, and this slowly unfolding thesis story that a bunch of reporters are still trying to explain to people.

Right now, Rasmussen has McDonnell leading Democrat Creigh Deeds 51%-42%. I'll allow for the possibility that this thesis could be an ingredient in McDonnell's undoing. I am personally repulsed by the cited content. But nobody should seriously be comparing this moment to a "macaca moment." They are nothing alike.

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