Journalist Michael Kinsley famously defined a gaffe as when a politician accidentally tells the truth. By that standard, Democrat Terry McAullife committed a gaffe in the Virginia gubernatorial debate on Tuesday night.
Challenged by Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin about his veto of a bill giving parents the right to demand alternatives to sexually explicit course materials, McAuliffe said, "I'm not going to let parents come into schools, take books out, and make their own decisions ... I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
In its limited context, the remark was a defensible claim about the boundaries of curriculum authority. But it got into gaffe territory in its accidental revelation of what the Democratic Party increasingly thinks of parents. In this view, challenges to decisions made by credentialed experts aren't an essential feature of democratic accountability. They're a kind of lèse majesté, a commoner's insult to rightful power.
Deference to experts in public health, education, and other domains plays well with core Democrat constituencies, including teachers and other educated civil servants who expect to receive deference rather than to show it. It may not play so well with other voters in Virginia, where COVID-19 regulations and "critical race theory" are controversial. Youngkin's appeals to parental authority will resonate with moderates who may have voted for President Biden but are uncomfortable with Democrats' bureaucratic drift. Of course, it will also energize committed Republican culture warriors, because it supports their belief that Democrats see parent's moral and educational authority over their children as an inherent threat to Democratic goals.
Apart from its electoral implications, McAullife's words reflect a challenge to democracy that unfortunately receives less attention than conspiracy theories about mass election fraud. Expert advice is an important resource for legislative and executive action, but political decisions are supposed to be made by elected officials rather than salaried professionals. Parents are wrong when they insist teachers "work for us," as if they were private tutors. But teachers do work for school boards and are subject to oversight by state legislatures, both which rightfully answer to voters, parents very much included.
Sensing a winning issue, Youngkin has already cut an ad based on the exchange. It may help him tighten a race where polls have found him consistently behind. It's not easy for a Republican to win a statewide race in Virginia, a state that's been transformed by the demographic and economic growth of the D.C. suburbs. McAullife's gaffe will help.