Political News

Ralph Northam has to resign, even if he doesn't know it yet

Posted February 2, 2019 10:27 a.m. EST
Updated February 2, 2019 1:48 p.m. EST

— Within a few hours of a picture being posted on the Internet from Ralph Northam's (D) medical school yearbook -- in which a man in blackface and another in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan appear -- it was clear the Virginia governor's political career was over.

Northam on Friday night confirmed that he was one of the two people in the photo -- he didn't say which one -- and issued an apology. "I cannot change the decisions I made nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today," he said in a statement. "I am committed to continuing that fight."

But on Saturday morning, CNN's Ryan Nobles reported that Northam told a top Virginia Democrat that he wasn't in the photo and that he wouldn't resign.

(Sidebar: Why not say whether you are the guy in the blackface or the KKK robes? I mean, at this point, full transparency is your only viable option.)

That apology was designed to buy Northam some time. He and his political team almost certainly knew that calls for his resignation were going to come -- and that the most dangerous time for him was the first 24 hours after the picture went public. Past scandals have suggested that if a politician can weather the initial outrage, people tend to get distracted by other outrages, lose interest, and the calls for resignation tend to lessen.

I get it. But here's the thing: Northam simply cannot survive this politically. There is no political strategy that gets you through something like this. None.

Consider what we know: This is a photo from Northam's medical school yearbook in 1984. Everyone -- EVERYONE -- knew by 1984 that appearing in either blackface or in KKK robes was absolutely unacceptable.

And remember that this was Northam's medical school yearbook. Not his high school yearbook. At the time the picture was taken he had to have been in his early to mid-20s. This isn't a "I was just a dumb kid doing dumb stuff" thing. This is not a youthful indiscretion. (Even if it was, I'm not sure that Northam could -- or should -- keep his job.)

Think about it in your own life. By the time you have graduated from college -- and likely WAY before that -- you know what's right and what's wrong. If someone came up to me in college and said "Hey man, wouldn't it be hilarious to dress up like this?" I would have known that under no circumstances is that something that should even be contemplated.

Right? Right.

There's just nothing more to say beyond that. Northam needed to know better -- and he clearly didn't. You cannot be one of 50 governors in the country if you are unable -- in your mid-20s -- to exercise good judgment in a moment like that. Once you have lost the moral authority to stand before people and say credibly "I understand your hopes and dreams and fears and I will represent them," then it's time to go.

Recognizing that fact, virtually every major figure within the Democratic Party -- from former Vice President Joe Biden to California Sen. Kamala Harris to former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe -- have called on Northam to resign.

Northam may think he maybe-just-maybe can hold on. He cannot. This is not the sort of thing you come back from -- nor should it be. Northam will realize that fact -- and the sooner he does so, the better for Virginia and the country. My guess is that current Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is the governor of Virginia by the end of this weekend.