Home Virginia Politics McDonnell as Houdini: His Excellency’s excellent escape plan?

McDonnell as Houdini: His Excellency’s excellent escape plan?


( – promoted by lowkell)

By Paul Goldman

By refusing to pro-actively push for a referendum, Democrats think they are being smart, confident they can kill the Governor’s ABC plan in the State Senate, and embarrass him. They see McDonnell in a straitjacket, hanging high above the General Assembly building, seemingly with no way out, and all of it rebounding to the Democrats sure benefit and his sure loss.

Harry Houdini promised to come back from the dead but never has. Until now perhaps?

As Houdini, aka Erik Ivan Weisz, showed escaping from a straitjacket is actually rather easy. Legend says the idea for his legendary upside-down escape before a huge crowd of people as caught by the newsreels came from the “Great Randini” the stage name of a young guy who was a fan of Houdini and who showed him the possibilities in the attic of his mother’s home in Sheffield, England. As to the strait jacket itself, it first came to Houdini’s attention while visiting a Canadian Institution where he first watched it being used on a patient.

Turns out it isn’t all that hard for a sane person, even a Republican, to get out a strait jacket, especially one put together by Democrats.


Senate Democrats and Democratic Party leaders laugh at the possibility. They think they have McDonnell in dire straits. Really?

Consider this however:

1)  McDonnell’s Reform Commission comes up with a number of modest reforms, and of course the marque issue, the McDonnell privatization plan. The Governor says thanks Mr. Malek and Company.

2) The Governor calls a Special Session, sending down bills to enact all of the reforms, big, medium and small.

3) Let’s assume worst case, his own GOP kills the ABC plan in the House, but passes along the others, small potatoes yes, but President Clinton showed how little things can mean a lot to your approval rating.

4) Senate Democrats will crow, yes it will be an embarrassment inside Capitol Square lobbying community to McDonnell, heck let’s even say they don’t give it to a study commission, just killed it outright.

5) Senate Democrats however have to pass these small things, what is the excuse not to?

Net, net: McDonnell gets headlines saying the GA passed X number of his reforms, saving Y dollars, but he got defeated on his big ABC thing.

Result: He is winner, not the Democrats. AND THIS IS ASSUMING THE WORST CASE SCENARIO. If the House puts it in a study committee instead of killing it, then McDonnell wins on his small things and can say that he agrees we can study it a little longer, we know have a new $1 billion in tranny money so no need to hurry right now if waiting a little bit will help get the GA on board.

The headlines will say: General Assembly passes most of Governor’s reforms but kills his big one.

In today’s political climate, getting bipartisan support for anything is a win, getting it for reforms that can be billed as saving millions and shrinking government is a home run.

BOTTOM LINE: If Democrats don’t watch it, they are the ones going to be in the straitjacket, politically speaking.

McDonnell has blundered hugely in his nearly year long pursuit of the white whale.

A referendum campaign would do not just the right thing by the people, but force him and the GOP to defend any number of things, giving Democrats a chance they have not had in recent memory to engage Virginians in a real debate on the broader issues which go into ABC privatization.

Come 2013, Democrats may regret letting McDonnell, Bolling and Cuccinelli snatch victory from the jaws of defeat without even putting up a fight.

You know what they say: It isn’t the size of the dog in the fight that matters, it is the size of the fight in the dog.  

  • Peter 2010

    Virginia Dems are doing exactly the right thing by refusing to press for a referendum. The less time we spend on ABC privatization, the better off we are. This issue ranks below 100 on a list of the top 100 issues facing the Commonwealth of Virginia.

  • Dan Sullivan

    and we won’t have the results of the referendum to resist.

    In fact because there was no referendum, the Democrats will be the party of “No” on this because Bob will call in the favors to get it passed in the House. The Democratic Senate will have killed it.

    But the DPVA has no strategists that consider the potential 2013 landscape. Only Saslaw has appeared sharp in this debate.  

  • vaambition


    I could not disagree more.  Dems have not said no and offered no plan.  The Dems are on the record supporting a transportation plan that offers a double lock box for transportation funding and a sustainable revenue stream…the gas tax

  • Goldmanusa

            Let me respond to three basic points being made around the state on the issue.  

    First, to say that Warner and Kaine are against referendums or that the Democrats have been is just not accurate. Warner and Kaine backed a referendum, when I got the job of writing the financial segment of Warner’s platform and then having to do the final edit of the whole thing the longest Action Plan in history he never said let’s rethink the transportation referendum, it was key part of the platform. Indeed, when Billy Thomas and myself, at a big meeting in the Governor’s office, were the only ones to question whether it might be best not to do it in 2002, Warner not only wanted it done, but added the Tidewater referendum which was not part of his platform. Kaine didn’t object either. When we had referendums on the state lottery and horse-racing, I don’t recall Warner or Kaine ever objecting. Dick Saslaw, a great leader, was a supporter as was Wilder and Democratic Senate, along with a Democratic AG and Governor. Indeed, Senator Saslaw wanted a 2002 referendum on a sales tax increase for education, not just transportation. He was right in predicting the referendum promised by Warner would be defeated in NOVA, but that wasn’t because he opposed a referendum. Rather, he felt including education was the only way for it to pass. Thus, Democrats have favored referendums at times, they have opposed them as in 2004, but please, history didn’t just start a few years ago. Referendums are a means to end, since here in Virginia they are advisory only, this claim that a referendum every once in a while is going to turn us into California is silly. Moreover, the referendum process was one of the big liberal reforms praised by some of the nation’s top Democrats 100 years ago when it was put into the Initiative and Referendum form adopted by many Western states, but not here on the East Coast. We use referendums to approve all changes to the Virginia Constitution, and I believe in most states a form of referendum was used to approve the Bill of Rights.

    So it is one thing to say that you opposed referendums as a matter of principle or in some cases as a policy choice. I get that. But to suggest anything more is not justified on the record. This is an approach I believe is the right one for this issue given it’s history. Others may not. This is what makes politics. .

    Two, this is not, admittedly, a big issue. But  particularly in the current condition facing the Virginia Democratic Party, we should be looking for chances to shake up the statewide landscape. You may want to engage on McDonnell/GOP on bigger issues, but if they don’t want to engage, then you can’t force them. We just got creamed last year, and right now, 2010 is presenting a difficult challenge, the pundits have written us off, but I am not the kind of person who throws in the towel. The Democrats have some good issues, but it is also true that again, it takes two to tango in politics. In 2005, the death penalty was not a big issue for most voters. But when Kilgore made it his big issue, Kaine had a chance to engage: and it cost Kilgore big time. In 2001, the technical fact that Jim Gilmore and the GOP had failed to pass the usual adjustment to the second year of the biennium budget was not a big deal since few knew the legal details. But it played out different. We used this to paint a braoder picture of there being “no budget”, yada, yada, yada. When Warner pledged not to raise taxes, he was addressing a bigger issue on people’s minds, as with the transportation referendum. But the “no budget” issue, based on a technicality, proved to be more important in framing the campaign. In 1997, the car tax per se was not a big issue across the state, but it had special power in Fairfax County especially and yes, it was a most hated tax but no one thought state government was responsible for this local tax. Gilmore cleverly used it to basically define the campaign and to go after NOVA voters in Fairfax County especially. In 1989, Wilder used the abortion issue even though it was not a big issue to the voters at large at the time. But it was a big issue with some key constituencies, especially younger Republican women. So he used it as a building block for his broader theme. The GOP wanted to engage on it, and they gave Wilder a chance to win. The point being: in politics, like tennis, the other side gets to hit the ball where they want, which may not be where you want. So here, when McDonnell is willing to engage on ABC, and his plan has so many policy and political problems with key statewide constituencies, it is a gift for a Democratic Party that could use such a campaign to reconnect with key constituencies in the sense of showing people we “get it”, that we are not just what they think now, a liberal party with liberal values who are intolerant of the culture of others. Truth is, that description fits the GOP in so many regards, but we Dems get the blunt of it, at least right now. So when McDonnell is willing to engage, I see it as a gift, Democrats and future Democratic candidates gain in having the discussion, since the campaign will be about more than ABC, there is a lot more involved. And yes, the big liquor interests will spend a ton, who cares? In politics, you can’t run scared of the people, you need to trust them.

    Third, let me address the concern we could lose a referendum. So I understand why people will say: If the Senate Democrats can block the McDonnell plan, then why risk losing a referendum? My article on “Houdini” tries to explain certain aspects of the answer to this discussion. Moreover, what do think are the chances of the GOP giving us a referendum on this type of issue again, which offers Democrats a unique chance to be part of a unique coalition that gets so many Virginians to listen to us when they don’t right now no matter how right we may be, an issue that puts huge cross-pressures on GOP constituencies, on Bolling and Cuccinelli. These are legitimate considerations since this ABC policy is tied up big time with big political interests. In politics, you have to be willing to take risk. I have no doubts the people of Virginia will see through the McDonnell plan. When are we Democrats going to get a chance to win a statewide election on a state issue again between now and 2013?  Again, I agree, there are bigger issues, who ideally wants to debate this for 6 more months. But we Democrats surely don’t face the ideal situation right now and McDonnell has provided a gift in my view.

    The reason McDonnell’s plan is in trouble in his own party is the very reason I have been saying for months a referendum would be one of the most important statewide campaigns in a long time for the future of state poltiics come 2013. Having had the good fortune to plot a few winning statewide strategies for favorites and underdogs, it immediately struck me that the ABC plan would split his own constituency. I couldn’t believe Republicans handed it to Democrats on a silver platter. The consensus seems to be to let McDonnell off the hook on it. I think it is huge political mistake, even if we were to lose the referendum in the end, the campaign would be great for those who want to have a real discussion with the people on some key issues, for this will bring benefits long term. Of course, I am as confident the NO side will win as McDonnell’s team is that they would win. That’s why a referendum is possible.