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Can Terry lead a 2013 Democratic comeback?

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By Paul Goldman

The old adage, that in politics “timing is everything”, has new poster boy: Terry McAuliffe. By the roll of the political dice, he has been given a once-in-gubernatorial-election cycle opportunity. It is similar to opportunities given – and immediately taken – by Chuck Robb, Jerry Baliles, Doug Wilder, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. It is, of course, possible that their seizing the moment didn’t matter. It might also be unimportant that such an opportunity proved to be a fundamental ingredient in the political image built by Robb and Warner, the two Democrats who wrested the Governor’s Mansion from a Republican. But as philosopher Yogi Berra said, some things are just “too coincidental to be a coincidence.” ,

What is this unique opportunity being presented to Terry as 2013 gubernatorial cycle begins, with Democrats unfortunately at their weakest point in the two-party era in terms of winning back the Governorship? We will get to it shortly, although careful observers of state politics already know.

First let’s set the political landscape.

POPULAR SITTING GOVERNORS HAVE A BIG SAY IN WHO FILLS THEIR SHOES

Assuming Governor Bob McDonnell keeps his current popularity, the 2013 Republican gubernatorial candidate will start with at least a hard 5-7 point advantage over the Democratic nominee, although a nasty nomination battle between Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli could significantly change this metric. The most popular Governors in the modern era – Chuck Robb, Mark Warner and George Allen – were all able to help push their chosen successors across the finish line, as all had served with them in statewide office. The one-term gubernatorial limitation appears to make swing voters want to give a popular chief executive a “second” one through a surrogate able to credibly claim he was part of a successful Administration.

It is also no surprise Robb, Allen and Warner all wrested the Governor’s Mansion from the other party. This allowed them to come into office with a clean state and new, fresh energy. Such a situation gave them a unique opening, which they shrewdly took. Like them, McDonnell has a high rating because he has appeal to middle-of-the-road independents, and less-than-super-partisan Democrats. In our increasingly polarized politics, having bipartisan appeal is worth a lot of votes. But it has to be earned through deeds, not words. This gave Robb, Warner and Allen a unique power at the time: right now, McDonnell is on track to have it too.

THE SECRET SAUCE OF WINNING DEMOCRATIC GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATES

It is important to note that Mark Warner is the only Democrat in the modern era to win the Governorship without having been either Lt. Governor or Attorney General first. He had, however, run a very credible losing race against incumbent Senator John Warner, meaning he didn’t get stuck with the “liberal” label, allowing him to then hook up with former Governor Allen on an important statewide education initiative. This helped further establish Warner’s middle-of-the-road credibility, since Republicans don’t join with “liberals” for those kinds of things.  

The Warner-Allen thing is seldom remembered, but it points to a crucial aspect of winning for a Democrat not at all appreciated by the party’s grassroots activists: all the gubernatorial  winners knew they needed a form of public, Republican/conservative validation. The word “needed” is used advisedly. The only gubernatorial winner in the state’s history regarded as a “liberal” by key swing voters was Doug Wilder. But his election defies all the rules anyway, so it just is what it is, perfectly logical yet mathematically impossible.

Starting with Virginians for Robb –  the political vehicle then used by well-known conservatives to put their stamp of “he ain’t one of them liberals” on a gubernatorial candidate – the Democratic candidate has always needed such a dimension to a winning campaign. Four years later, a split in the GOP led to Republicans for Baliles, a small group but sufficient, with Robb’s continued crossover strength, to help give the Democratic nominee a landslide win. It also helped that Baliles was generally depicted in the media as the “conservative” in the Democratic nomination race against “liberal” Dick Davis. Silly stuff, but such things do matter.

             

Wilder’s razor-thin victory margin was fueled by the public support of a sizable number of women who normally voted Republican, even conservative, captured in a TV ad symbolically featuring one of them, which proved crucial in NOVA.          

Virginians for Warner, taken from the Robb play book, listed many prominent supporters of previous Republican Governors. The fact that Tim Kaine’s father in law was the state’s first Republican Governor is not to be underestimated as a key factor in his statewide rise.

Bottom line: A Democrat needs some GOP/conservative street cred to be elected Governor.

This is not something a campaign can create by campaign rhetoric or issue positions. Like or not, swing voters don’t much believe what candidates say, especially when it seems to be contrary to their perceived image. Such cred can apparently only be given by others with the right resume.

HOW 2013 IS SHAPING UP RIGHT NOW FOR DEMOCRATS

There is nothing in the history of the state which suggests the next Democratic nominee can win without taking a page from the formula of his or her successful predecessors. Those who say Obama’s election last year shows there is a “progressive” majority if only the DPVA would do the work needed to organize to get it out to vote are dreaming. It ain’t there, not even close.

Moreover, this history suggests it will be doubly important for Terry McAuliffe, given his political pedigree as head of the Democratic National Committee and close identification with President Bill Clinton, to heed the lesson of Robb, Baliles, Wilder, Warner and Kaine.

As I will show, Terry can turn his national credibility with key Washington players and Mr. Clinton to Virginia’s advantage, which will gain Terry big points for 2013.

CAN BEING THE “ELECTRIC CAR JOBS GUY” PROVIDE THE SECRET SAUCE FOR TERRY? NO.

The businessman image worked brilliantly for Mark Warner, But there is a fundamental difference between the strategies in this regard between the two men. Terry’s approach is not Warneresque at all. Rather, he wants to use his bringing an electric car manufacturing plant to Southeastern Virginia to paint the image of a pro-jobs, pro-Virginia guy, business guy who could do this across the state if elected Governor. But fairly or unfairly, the average Virginian is going to see this as primarily motivated by profit, not public service. We are fortunate that in Virginia, “profit” is not a dirty word.

But like I say, fairly or unfairly, the car plant will always be seen as more about Terry than about Virginia. Warner’s approach was fundamentally different as a political, indeed business, matter. Moreover, Warner didn’t run as the Jobs Guy; rather he used the businessman image to seize the fiscal issue from the GOP. If you remember, “Deficit” Jim Gilmore and his party deadlocked on money matters due to his cooking the books to justify his car tax program. For the first time in history, the General Assembly proved incapable of passing an amended biennial budget.

Such a circumstance could never have been predicted when Warner started his run for the Governor’s Mansion. If you carefully read Warner’s platform, he used this once-in-a-generation opening to outflank the GOP on the fiscal issue, there isn’t a tax cut or budget savings it didn’t endorse, it opposed any tax increase, and didn’t talk about big new spending programs. We started with a sizable lead, and basically played defense until the GOP attacked us: and then turned them into negative campaigners.

My historic takeaway: Terry’s instincts are correct in knowing he needs to fight the “National Democrat” charge, which is GOP speak for “liberal” as it was for the old Byrd Machine. But the electric car plant business guy doesn’t have sufficient horse power to do it.

WHAT CAN PUT TERRY IN THE ROBB/BALILES/WILDER/WARNER/KAINE WINNING MOLD?

Chuck Robb came around at a time when Virginia was beginning to grow and thus the state budget was getting sizable new revenues, even during a recession. So he gambled that Virginians were finally ready to juggle budget priorities and stop short-changing  K-12 education, specifically to raise teacher salaries then lagging well behind the national average. It seems like a no-brainer now. But it didn’t at the time. He can take pride in being the catalyst for improving K-12 education, no small legacy.

Jerry Baliles decided to embrace the idea of Doug Wilder running for Lt. Governor, even though the polls said the Richmond Senator couldn’t get 40% of the vote. This surprise move helped Baliles win the Democratic nomination in an upset, also allowing him to tack rightward in the election as it totally solidified the party’s base. He also doubled down on Robb’s education legacy, promising higher teacher salaries, making sure Democrats kept the education issue as our political weapon.

Wilder used his four years as Lt. Governor to create a fiscally conservative, tough against crime, “ain’t no liberal” here image. He proposed tax cuts he knew Democrats would reject, he opposed tax increases his own party supported. When the Supreme Court put the abortion issue on the front political burner, Wilder defied the conventional wisdom again, and refused to take the liberal position, redefining the issue in classic Virginia terms. Anyone who thinks his victory wasn’t earned vote by vote over four years is kidding themselves. But he was also careful to keep the education issue, promising to sure all children in the state had access to a quality education. This may seem obvious today, but it had edge back then. Education has always been a key issue with women, especially suburban women: they fueled his improbable win, not the men who this time, didn’t vote for the war hero.

Mark Warner broke new ground in promising to improve Community Colleges, a key part of our higher education infrastructure previously short-changed by too great a tilt toward the 4-year colleges. This type of education stance helped his cred with working class families in rural areas.

Then comes Tim Kaine, the first person elected Governor who opposed the death penalty. He spent months trying to compensate for what figured to be a several-poll-points hit from this position given the fact that most Virginians favor capital punishment. But then the Timster, aided by his current Senate campaign manager Mike Henry, made a brilliant tactical decision: they turned his opposition into a huge plus by seizing an opening given them by the Republicans. In addition, Tim made sure he built on the Democrat’s education edge by staking a bold position on pre-K.

The Takeaway: Every one of the Democratic gubernatorial winners did two things, one predictable, one not. They made sure they “won” the education issue by thinking ahead and staking out  a position that had fresh appeal, showing the Dems as the leaders. But at the same time, they were all followed the advice of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi: you always run to daylight. It doesn’t matter the play you want to call. What matters is the play the other side will let you run. You put your head down and go for it.,

WHAT WOULD THE 5 WINNING DEMOCRATS DO RIGHT NOW?

Terry doesn’t have to guess. He has the most popular Republican and Democratic Governor pointing the way. The former Governors still most active in state politics – Allen, Kaine and Wilder – have likewise been pointing in the same direction in their own way.

The 2008 Democratic Party platform made it plain: countries that out educate us today will out compete us tomorrow.

Abraham Lincoln made the same basic point in his first political speech.

TO WIN IN 2013, TERRY HAS TO OWN THE EDUCATION ISSUE

Robb, Baliles, Wilder and Kaine could use their statewide positions to build a record on the issue before trying to move up to Governor. This is why Warner smartly joined with Allen on education. At the time, Allen was preparing to run for Senate, so he had his own self-interest in scoring on education. We remember Jim Gilmore’s car tax promise. But we forget he also promised to fund the hiring of thousands of more teachers. He knew the advantage in mooting out the Democrat’s normal education edge.

HOW DOES TERRY DO IT?

Admittedly, it has hard to do what the previous 5 Democratic winners did, stake out a new, fresh position on education, one they could advocate with credibility due to their previous political involvements. They had certain advantages Terry does not.

BUT RIGHT NOW, Terry has a huge advantage they didn’t enjoy at the time.

A WIN WIN IS THERE, RIGHT NOW, FOR TERRY ON EDUCATION

To be sure, it will take his good friend Bill Clinton to help. But since the former President put his prestige behind the issue in a 1997 State of the Union address, it isn’t, as they say in politics, a “heavy lift.” Quite the opposite.

Even House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor is not just publicly on board, but he actually introduced the first bill on the subject back in 2009.

Right now, he and Governor McDonnell, Kaine and Allen, an increasingly number of the state editorial boards and several key presidential advisors are ready to part the waters for Mr. Clinton.

I refer here to Senate Bill 1685, chiefly sponsored by Senators Webb and Warner, already praised in the Washington Post and elsewhere for having gathered such a strong bipartisan support in Virginia. Unfortunately, the reason for the legislation is not known outside of the our state.

The average K-12 school building in Virginia, indeed the country, is considered obsolete, built for a 20th century curriculum when America needs it’s kids to have a 21st century education for them – and thus US – to successfully compete. In fact, upwards of 30% if not more are so aged, they can qualify for “historic” status under federal law.

The President called this a national “shame.” Studies have shown it hampers teaching, which in turn hampers learning. Democrats and Republicans all agree the status quo is unacceptable. In fact, they passed legislation in 1986 to help remedy the situation.

But for 25 years, an obscure part of the IRS code, known as the “prior use” rule, has thwarted this law, known as the “federal rehabilitation tax credit.” It has worked famously to make it economic to modernize our aged building stock to the praise of conservatives and liberals. But due to the “prior use” rule, the law has been a utter failure in one key area: fully renovating our oldest schools.

As Governor McDonnell and Congressman Cantor have pointed out, this anti-business, anti-education IRS rule has greatly increased the cost to localities in terms of modernizing neighborhood schools. But for the “prior use” rule, localities might be able to save 33%! This money would then be available to address other education needs at the local level.

How do we know this is true? When Tim Kaine was Mayor of Richmond, he helped lead the community to find a way around the IRS block. Basically, the “prior use” rule only applies in a limited number of situations such as local school modernization. This is why the Virginia Education Association backs SB 1685.

When Tim was Mayor, the city needed to fully modernize an old local high school building. But it cost too much. A lawyer suggested using the 1986 tax credit law. But the “prior use” rule says it isn’t available if an old local school building is modernized into a modern local school building: the prior use remains the same. Knowing the risk of such projects, but also knowing the important of fixing our schools, Republicans and Democrats passed the “federal rehabilitation tax credit” law to give private capital an incentive to take the risk. Risk takers can earn tax credits, saleable in the open market’ equal to upwards of 20% of the cost of modernization.

But the “prior use” rule threw a huge glitch into the situation: and so there is no private capital to do these projects, it goes to office buildings, luxury condos, etc. Tim Kaine just wrote an article on how he got around the law, it is available here.  Essentially, they sold a deteriorating local Richmond High School building to a private group which in turn modernized it to be the high tech home of the Regional Governor’s High School created for the top students in Central Virginia. The IRS ruled that since the regional use was different than the prior local use, the tax credits were earned. Tim told me city saved nearly 40%! I use 33% in my writings to be on the conservative side.  

Even Franz Kafka would be baffled by a country that allows the educational opportunities to be decided by such IRS legalism. Senate Bill 1685 is among the shortest ever, all it does is eliminate the “prior use” bar to K-12 modernization projects. It gives localities a new option.

SO WHAT SHOULD TERRY DO?

There is one private citizen in America who knows how to get the media to focus on an issue. On a national basis, passage of the Webb-Warner-Cantor legislation can produce upwards of 2,000,000 jobs, save localities tens of billions of dollars in unnecessary construction expenses which can be redirected to other classroom needs, and it will reduce the long term debt burden both locally and nationally over time.

Here in Virginia, a study just using the Internet uncovered nearly 500 schools which might qualify for a 33% savings when Senate Bill 1685 passes. It isn’t a panacea, but it is the only legislation ever introduced in Congress which provides a path over time to doing precisely what the last two Democratic Presidents said we had to do.

If anyone in America knows how to make Terry gets the requisite credit for helping to make this happen, it is Bill Clinton, his PR skills are not in doubt. Moreover, with a few tweaks, it can be made even better for Virginia and the nation.

Most importantly: This is an issue that key Virginia Republicans are heavily committed too, because they know it helps their state. So they are going to praise Terry for helping, like I say, it is one of those win-win-win situations.

Governor McDonnell knows it enhances his image of bipartisan problem solver. It gives Eric a way to say that he gave the President a 100% private capital solution to Mr, Obama’s goal of getting our children state-of-the-art 21st century schools. Mr. Clinton gets to bring people together and help a good friend.

Virginia localities save huge, and working families know their kids now will have functional, not obsolete, schools.

                                             Fact: Senate Bill 1685 will create 10X more jobs in Virginia over time than Terry’s car plant, so he is only adding to his image there. On education, he will have taken a bold step on education, indeed he has addressed a huge issue in Virginia for years, namely the Standards of Quality don’t take into consideration the growing cost of school modernization! Given our state rehabilitation tax credit, this changes that equation for old schools!

Mark Warner and Bob McDonnell, the two most popular politicians in the state, have given all those who want to be Governor in 2013 a road map on how to be pro-job, pro-education, pro-fiscal responsibility.

As luck would have it, Terry is uniquely positioned to make it happen.

                                          Robb/Baliles/Wilder/Warner/Kaine would have been all over it as gubernatorial candidates. Heck, Mark and Tim are on it big now in terms of the Senate.

It isn’t the play Terry called as his team huddled up for the start of the 2013 cycle. But it is the play that history says can make him Governor with even conservatives in rural Virginia cheering him on, along with the top GOP office holders in the Commonwealth.

I love the idea of electric cars. But in 2013, the electricity generated around the state has schools modernized under Senate Bill 1685 begin to open will crackle with political importance.

  • pontoon

    can win in rural Virginia.  Perhaps he doesn’t think he needs us.