By Paul Goldman
In the movie “Gladiator,” the Russell Crowe character asks to be given a “soldier’s death,” befitting a General now considered a traitor by the new Emperor. At this crucial moment early in the film, he was on his knees, hands tied, a former soldier in the General’s army, but now protector of the Emperor about to cut off his former commander’s head with a giant sword. The soldier agrees with the General, setting up the scene where Crowe escapes, although destined to ultimately meet his death in a climactic scene loosely based on an alleged historical practice of the crazed Emperor.
An eon later, Ken Cuccinelli, the character running for Virginia Governor on the 2013 GOP ticket, is likewise kneeling before the grim reaper – albeit politically. Seduced by Larry Sabato and others telling him last Spring that he was a “sure” winner (apparently due to their skewed view of Terry’s “negatives”), Cuccinelli dismissed the truth that we were writing here on Blue Virginia: that Jonnie Williams might not bring down the Governor, but he would surely bring down Cuccinelli if the AG didn’t return the bad boy’s 18K in one form or fashion.
Based on newspaper accounts, it seems that Cuccinelli’s strategy team told him he didn’t have to return the gifts. Otherwise, why not do it? Anyone who has ever dreamed of running a political campaign for any office should know at least that much. Apparently not on Team Cuccinelli.
No question, figuring out how to run a winning campaign for Governor is hard, and in that regard, the chance of being brilliant is likely just a requirement to make a virtue out of a necessity. Most of the time the guy with the most money wins, because most of the time, the other guy doesn’t have the guts to run on a bold policy idea. In Virginia gubernatorial history, only Doug Wilder in 1989, Jim Gilmore in 1997 and Tim Kaine in 2005 risked it all on what might be seen as a bold policy. Wilder broke new ground on abortion policy in terms of a GUV race: but it was a matter of necessity, so who knows what happens if he hadn’t been down double digits. Gilmore’s “No Car Tax” was shrewd, as being against taxes always popular: but he still would have won without it due to George Allen’s popularity at the time. Kaine cleverly figured out how to turn his opposition to the death penalty into a plus (basically be against it morally but be okay with it in the Governor’s chair). But again, Warner had his back (and the Kigore campaign ran the “Hitler ads,” which backfired big time).
In that regard, Cuccinelli is like Wilder in 1989: he has to do it on his own, no coattails, no General Sam Houston changing his mind and riding to the rescue of his political enemy Colonel Travis trapped at The Alamo (lot of politics there folks, don’t believe the John Wayne version totally). But Wilder had this advantage: if his issue worked, he had a statistical chance to win. Right now, Cuccinelli has no such potential winning issue. He is in the Godwin position of 1973: he needs the Democrat to mess up big time.
Meaning, as with Russell Crowe’s character, the GOP GUV guy has only one chance: ask for a “soldier’s death”. In political terms, this means running the rest of the campaign on the high road, championing an issue worthy of a candidate for Governor. There are any number of PACs and other entities who will attack Terry, whatever. If Terry screws up, then maybe he gives Cuccinelli an opening.
But as for Cuccinelli and his campaign per se, they need to see these last weeks as his political epitaph, telling people what he would like them to remember about could have been. In these last few weeks, there is only time to get one issue across, and even then, it will take skill to do it. The mistakes of a year of botched campaigning can’t be erased in the time left.
There was a time when $18K donated to charity would have been worth political millions. This is not true now, especially the way it was (mis)handled: doing the about-face yesterday, when Cuccinelli knew the President intended to speak on Syria; not holding a press conference in every possible media market to announce it; not being able to simply make an honest, uncluttered apology; all tells me that he still feels a victim to a double standard. This means he still doesn’t get it. Same for his staff. As Laurie Morgan would ask them: what is it about NO that you don’t understand?
“Freedom is nothing left to lose” sang Janis Joplin. Cuccinelli is free to free his campaign from a failed brain trust and go out like a winner, whether he wins or not. Instead of spending the remaining time explaining why the other guy doesn’t deserve to win, Cuccinelli has the option of putting all his resources into explaining why he should win.
I stand by my sweep prediction regardless. But like Russell Crowe’s character, there is honor in dying a “soldier’s death.” Why? Because then you – not your detractors – get to write your epitaph.