In a Republican Party now dominated by political pugilists, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to the play the role of peacemaker. That, at least, was his message to voters Thursday night in a CNN town hall focused on public education.
But Youngkin, whose 2021 victory in the commonwealth made him a national GOP star, was less inclined to discuss his other ambitions. He shrugged off a question about a potential 2024 presidential run and repeatedly turned down opportunities to pointedly distinguish himself from would-be rivals.
The question now for GOP voters is whether they will continue to see Youngkin as a rising star or, given the early flow of the 2024 primary season, as an afterthought in a contest that has so far been dominated by former President Donald Trump, a declared candidate, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is likely on his way to entering the race.
Still, there is no denying Youngkin’s influence on GOP politics. His focus on education and “parents’ rights” during his 2021 campaign has been copied by Republicans around the country, many seeking to parlay anger over Covid-19 shutdowns into a broader backlash against public educators and administrators.
Like Youngkin, they have also attempted to package cultural clashes over race and gender identity as fights over the freedom of parents in educating their children.
Here are some takeaways from Youngkin’s town hall on Thursday:
Youngkin may be treading the same political terrain as Trump and DeSantis, but during the town hall, like on the campaign trail in 2021, he packaged the message in less combative terms – a trait that could appeal to conservatives concerned that the current front-runners could be too divisive in a general election.
Whether faced with tough questions on the handling of race in education or the treatment of transgender students, Youngkin was all smiles, all the time. He consistently attempted to defuse potentially tense exchanges with kind words and an insistence that the controversy at hand was not, in fact, all that controversial – a stance many Democrats and Republicans would likely reject.
Youngkin also passed up the chance to use the national stage to aim any harsh criticism at President Joe Biden, who has been a staunch opponent of the policies championed by the governor and similarly disposed Republicans.
But that decision – to sit back where his contemporaries lunge forward – was instructive. If Youngkin does enter the 2024 GOP primary, he may do so as the feel-good alternative to heavy hitters like Trump and DeSantis.
Youngkin defended the executive order he signed last year banning “critical race theory” from being part of public school curriculum, arguing that children should not be taught that “they are inherently biased.”
Critical race theory is based on the premise that racism is systemic in American society and is not the simple result of individual prejudice. According to CRT, racism is baked into institutions, laws, and policies that create and maintains racial inequities.
The theory was not a part of Virginia’s standard of learning but has become a frequent target for Republican leaders seeking conservative grassroots support.
Youngkin said Thursday that his “critical race theory” executive order was less important than other directives, including one that states that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. (This had long been a point of debate among historians and political leaders but is considered by many to be a settled point.)
The executive order stated that “inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” should have no place in school curriculum. Youngkin’s administration later created a tipline for parents to report on teachers who allegedly disobeyed it. (The system has since been shut down.)
Schools, Youngkin said Thursday, should not “teach that a child is guilty for sins of the past because of their race or religion or their sex” or “that a child is a victim because of their race or religion or their sex.” CRT, he argues, suggests just that.
“CRT isn’t a class that’s taught,” he added. “It’s a philosophy that’s incorporated in the curriculum.”
Pressed by Tapper on how, under these constraints, teachers can explain that the present is a product of the past, Youngkin demurred.
“We must teach all that,” the governor said, before pivoting to a criticism of “today’s world of equal outcomes for all students at any cost.”
Youngkin has pushed a raft of new policies focused on transgender students.
His administration’s guidelines include a ban on trans students using bathrooms or competing on sports teams that do not match their sex assigned at birth. He hmas also required that parents sign off on the use of a gender pronoun different from what appears in a student’s school record, among other similar steps.
But in his CNN town hall appearance, Youngkin tried to minimize the new rules, which have been met with a backlash from transgender and equal rights advocates, arguing that his only goal is to “accommodate” as many students as possible and to guarantee parents’ involvement in these “difficult decisions.”
“Sports are very clear. I don’t think it’s controversial. I don’t think that biological boys should be playing sports with biological girls,” Youngkin said. “There’s been decades of efforts in order to gain opportunities for women in sports, and it’s just not fair.”
On the issue of restrooms, Youngkin again parried and pointed to past statements in which he suggested that “we just need extra (gender neutral) bathrooms in schools.”
And pressed by Tapper about what do in instances in which parents are not supportive of their trans children, Youngkin instead pointed to parents who he said have been locked out of their children’s lives.
“Children belong to parents,” Youngkin said. “Not to the state, not to schools, not to bureaucrats, but to parents.”
Youngkin was questioned about what concrete measures Virginia is taking to protect students and staff following an incident earlier this year in Newport News, in which a 6-year-old boy allegedly shot his elementary school teacher.
The governor argued that Virginia needs to focus on improving mental health resources rather than strengthening gun laws – saying that the commonwealth already has some of the “toughest gun laws in the country.”
“What we continue to find is that those gun laws don’t keep us safe. Because it’s not laws that keep us safe. It’s the behavior of people that we need to make sure that we’re paying attention to. Parents have a responsibility to keep guns out of their young children’s hands, and they need to be held accountable for that,” Youngkin said.
He then pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic’s toll on children’s mental health and said it was important that Virginia move forward with an “aggressive transformation” of its behavioral health system.
Asked if he would strengthen the state’s red flag law or require a safe storage measure, Youngkin said that Virginia already has such a measure in place and that requirements exist for parents to restrict access to firearms for children.
“The reality is, if people don’t follow the law, then the laws aren’t as powerful as they otherwise could be,” he argued.
Youngkin said more Virginia schools should ban students and teachers from using ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot tool that could make it easier for students to cheat.
“I do think it’s something to be very careful of, and I think more school districts should ban it,” he told Tapper.
Earlier this year, Fairfax County public schools in northern Virginia blocked ChatGPT from county-issued devices, according to WTOP News.
School districts in New York City, Seattle and Los Angeles have also banned students and teachers from using ChatGPT on district networks and devices.
The tool generates convincing responses and essays in response to user prompts.
“I think we should just be clear about what our goal of education is, which is to make sure that our kids can think,” Youngkin said. “And therefore, if a machine is thinking for them, then we’re not accomplishing our goal.”
Youngkin expressed support for legislation in Virginia that would have required the state’s Department of Education to recommend policies about selecting and removing books from public school libraries.
“Had that bill passed, I would have signed it. And then we would have engaged with communities, not in a strong-handed way, but in an engaged way, to listen and discuss and make good decisions for our kids,” he said.
The legislation in question, House Bill 1448, was introduced in and passed by the Republican-led House of Delegates this year but was killed at the committee level in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Youngkin said Thursday that he wants to ensure that parents are aware of the books and materials in public libraries and in their children’s curriculum. He pointed out that he signed a bill last year that requires schools to notify parents if instructional material contains sexually explicit subjects.
“I do believe there are moments where we have to make decisions about what’s age-appropriate and what is appropriate,” he said. “What books should be in an elementary school library? Should they have explicit pictures in them or not? Well, I don’t think they should be there. And these are decisions that I think we should take on as opposed to run away from.”
This story has been updated with additional information.