Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Creigh Deeds, the Democrat running for governor of Virginia, may not be much of a candidate, but he has a future as a political commentator. During a recent interview, Deeds explained his trouble gaining political traction: "Frankly, a lot of what's going on in Washington has made it very tough. We had a very tough August because people were just uncomfortable with the spending; they were uncomfortable with a lot of what was going on, a lot of the noise that was coming out of Washington, D.C."

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Some of this is blame-shifting. Deeds has made plenty of mistakes that can't be attributed to the national political environment, including a tendency to make policy proposals that would leave blank space on a note card.

But Deeds is correct to complain that "what's going on in Washington" (translation: the ambitious liberalism of national Democrats) and "the spending" (translation: President Obama's stimulus package and other expensive plans) and "the noise" (translation: debates on the role of government that Obama has provoked) have undermined the candidate's appeal in a center-right state. In recent polling, Congress has an approval rating of 21 percent -- 10 points lower than the approval rating of Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Deeds is running while carrying the burden of a Democratic Congress -- and the increasingly heavy burden of Obama.

The Virginia race does not merely reflect national trends; it will help determine those trends. The November election may come at a key moment in the health care debate, just as conservative Democrats are being asked to take a political risk in support of Obama and reform. A Democratic loss in Virginia would send a message: The risk is greater than you think.

Both Deeds and Obama are now in a difficult political position. At a recent forum, Deeds refused to identify himself as an Obama Democrat -- hardly flattering to the president. And Obama seems reluctant to be identified as a Deeds Democrat, having campaigned in the state only once, two months ago. Either Obama realizes that his high-profile involvement would undermine Deeds, or the president doesn't want to squander his credibility on a losing campaign. Neither explanation is good for Democrats.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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