Illustration by Tin Salamunic
There was hardly anyone who was unaware back in February that the circus was in town. You simply couldn't miss all the excitement and death-defying feats. And of course the clowns! Who doesn't love a clown? And to think all this was happening not two miles from where Ringling Bros. was performing its Greatest Show on Earth.
Yes, the real circus was not at the Coliseum but at the Capitol, which might as well have been draped with a striped tent as the members of the Virginia General Assembly put on their own production of The Most Depressing Show on Earth.
Just last month in this column, I poked a fair bit of fun at the Virginia GOP for its goofy attempt to force voters in the presidential primary to sign a pledge vowing to support the Republican nominee for president. Little did I know the vast majority of Republicans in the legislature would subsequently pile into a clown car that can only turn right.
At the wheel of this clown car was "Sideshow Bob" himself, Del. Robert G. Marshall of Manassas. It seems like not so long ago that Virginia Republicans did everything they could to distance themselves from arguably the far-rightest of the far-right conservatives in the legislature, a guy who makes Eric Cantor look like JFK.
This is the guy who opposes abortion in every single instance, including rape and incest. Incest, by the way, Marshall has said is sometimes "voluntary."
This is the guy who explained birth defects in this way in 2010: "When you abort the firstborn of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children. ... In the Old Testament, the firstborn of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There's a special punishment Christians would suggest."
He is the guy who, when he lost his chairmanship of the Virginia Commission on Immigration in 2007, had to have the gavel physically wrested from his hands by fellow panel members.
But he's also the guy who almost swiped the GOP nomination for John Warner's vacated U.S. Senate seat from under Gov. Jim Gilmore in 2008, signaling even then that Virginia's far-right conservatives had found their man.
So when Marshall gassed up the clown car and said he was headed for the Cliffs of Insanity, the Republicans piled in. In a year when one would expect the controlling party's most important legislative measures to be dominated by bills that would improve jobs, business, education and transportation, the Republicans gave us a slate of bills that focused on guns and uteruses. And it was Marshall who led the way with the very first piece of legislation introduced in the session — House Bill 1, the so-called "personhood" bill, which sought to establish personhood at the moment of conception. Another bill attempted to make invasive ultrasounds mandatory for any woman seeking an abortion in Virginia.
Suddenly the party that vehemently opposed the government-mandated HPV vaccine was mandating a vaginal probe.
Naturally, people got upset.
Polls showed that by wide margins, Virginians rejected these measures. Huge protests, which far outnumbered rallies in support of the bills, got national attention.
It was time for the Ringmaster to step in. And so Gov. Bob McDonnell, who had no problem with the government-mandated ultrasound when it was first introduced, suddenly changed his mind (and found a way to blame Democrats for the fiasco). Lawmakers rethought their positions. Bills were watered down, but only so much. In the case of the ultrasound bill, abdominal ones will be required as of July 1. Personhood was tabled until next year.
The circus packed up and left, with an angry mob chasing the train cars out of town. But they'll be back. November is just around the corner, and Bob Marshall will try to pull the rug out from under George Allen, as he challenges Allen for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
The clown car will be tuned up and ready to go. The only question is, will Republicans be so quick to pile in this time?