Saslaw Be Damned? Why McAuliffe Should Take Cuccinelli’s Offer.


    by Paul Goldman

    Let me ask you a good question: When did winning the Governorship become such a bad thing?

    I got married in the Governor’s Mansion: true, it is public housing, but there is no shame in that. Moreover, we took the “No Blacks Need Apply” sign off the door years ago, so liberals and Democrats and others no longer have to have moral qualms (not that they ever did when invited previously, but one is entitled to pretend for the children). They keep the place neater than a dorm room, and you can get to work by going through a maze of underground tunnels if the weather isn’t to your liking.

    The point being; it will do for government work. At today’s prices, it normally takes about $30 million to get a four-year lease, along with having to make a few billion dollars in promises to special interests. So it ain’t cheap even by DC standards.

    But 2013 isn’t normal: Presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli wants to give the lease to Democrat Terry McAuliffe for free! Sure, Terry will have to go through the motions over the next few months, spend a lot of money, and there is always the possibility of some unexpected political asteroid. It is politics after all.

    That remote interplanetary occurrence aside, Cuccinelli is making Terry an offer that Marlon Brando, aka The Godfather, would be certain no one could refuse. Cuccinelli continues to refuse to publicly back Governor McDonnell’s transportation plan. As I have been writing for weeks, this is a baffling position for the presumptive Republican nominee, unless Cuccinelli is willing to run not only against his own party’s governor, not only against his own party’s Lt. Governor, not only against his own party’s caucus in the House of Delegates, not only against his own party’s business community establishment, not only…you get the picture by now.

    Having challenged the Democratic, Republican and old guard conservative establishment, even Richmond’s African American establishment on some big issues – and won – there are few people in Virginia more prepared to challenge the political status quo for the right reasons, irrespective of the personal risk. But as best I can tell, Mr. Cuccinelli’s position on transportation is not rooted in any such populist championing of the average person against all-powerful special interests.

    Truth is, Cuccinelli backed the conservative GOP Senate alternative to the McDonnell plan, which they knew would lead to higher taxes – albeit in a different form than currently used – and a de facto sales tax increase for internet sales (which is why dissenting Tea Party Republicans were against it led by anti-tax guru Grover Norquist). Perhaps Mr. Cuccinelli is laying an economic populist strategy for the fall. But there is no evidence of it right now nor based on his previous runs for office. Rather, he is just SAYING NO to McDonnell for….reasons which I confess not to understand.

    So Laurie Morgan is right to ask me: What is there about NO that you don’t understand? As a matter of political strategy, it is 100% in terms of Cuccinelli right now. Yet even more baffling right now is the NO posture of Senate Democrats. Let me be blunt: If Terry McAuliffe could say YES to Governor McDonnell’s basic equation – swapping the gas tax for the sales tax – HE IS A SURE WINNER except for that asteroid strike.

    Think about it: The Democratic nominee backing a Republican governor, a Republican LG, the Republican business community, the Republican editorial boards, on an issue of taxes, transportation, jobs, to down the list. But that’s only the half it. The Democratic nominee is backing the pillars of the GOP who are together joined in an alliance against the GOP gubernatorial candidate, indeed most likely an entire GOP ticket which can be painted as anti-McDonnell, anti-progress, anti-jobs, anti-transportation, et. al.

    If you were an astrophysicist and you discovered such a planetary alignment, you would get the Nobel Prize. How can you say NO to this?

    But Saslaw and the Senate Democrats are saying NO as of right now. It might be a tactic, they might be merely trying to get the best terms on the swap possible. What seems therefore as a NO WAY EVER stance is really geared to make it appear they tried as best one could: but then paint Governor McD as too rigid, and so for the good of the state, they agreed to something because to do nothing would be a real loss for Virginia.

    Is this possible? Sure. And why do I say this Because the idea that somehow the gas tax, the user fee, is so fundamental to a fair and progressive way to fund transportation as to be the only way to do it for a real Democrat is SIMPLY BS.

    First of all: Democrats passed the first sales tax to fund transportation in 1986 rejecting the very argument that once you stop using the user fee formula, you have changed the rules. Then later, they pushed through a law allowing NOVA to fund local transportation projects with an income tax. When the Warner campaign platform implicitly endorsed allowing localities to raise the sales tax for regional road projects,no one objected to the platform that I wrote making it clear Warner would not raise any other taxes for transportation. NONE.

    Senate Democrats just voted again to allow sales tax money to be used for local transportation projects. They just voted to allow sales taxes from Internet purchases to be used mostly for transportation initiatives, a total reversal of the current distribution formula for sales taxes. SO PLEASE: Have a little respect for the intelligence of the people of Virginia, not too much, but just a tad, is that like too much too ask?  

    Yes, totally eliminating the gas tax in any form – the McD plan – is far different than having the gas tax be part of the total transportation revenue package even as declining source in terms of the overall percentage. I get the difference. But as pointed out 27 years ago, when you open Pandora’s box, you’ve got to be willing to live with the consequences.

    So: when it comes to Senator Saslaw’s NO, I confess Ms. Morgan to not understanding. Moreover, I think Senator Saslaw is indeed posturing: he is willing to take a gas tax increase off the table, he is willing to consider a cut in the gas tax, maybe even a phaseout under the right triggers in the right deal. He is just holding firm so he can blame the result on Governor McD.

    BUT IF THAT IS THE CASE: Then why not tell Terry Mac it is okay for him to get out front, to publicly back the governor’s proposed swap of taxes if he will do a few things to make the overall package better? It would be a bombshell for sure. And yes, there would be a lot of Democrats not happy with this, the blogs would explode, yada, yada, yada.

    My reaction: So what, been there, done that, sometimes you lean on your base, it is part of the winning strategy almost all the time.

    Bottom line: By refusing to embrace Governor McDonnell’s plan, Mr. Cuccinelli has made Terry Mac an offer he should not be prevented from taking. For all I know, Cuccinelli is coming to this political senses on the issue right now, realizing if he is seen as opposing the governor and the House Republicans on a deal they make with Saslaw, his chances of winning in the fall depend on pure luck.

    Thus, as long as Cuccinelli has a chance to escape his own political death wish, the opportunity for the Democrats to cinch the Governorship can vanish in a flash.

    I get the user fee argument. But Senator Saslaw voted YES for the sales tax under Baliles, he didn’t vote NO because it wasn’t a user fee. I understood his vote. He is a smart guy. He told me in Warner’s office our plan for a regional referendum on a transportation sales tax was doomed: it would fail. He was right, I have said that many times publicly.  He is trying to do the right thing as he sees it. This I fully accept.

    Accordingly, my gut feel: Under the right conditions, Saslaw would agree to give the governor a win on the gas tax. That being the case, then he should let Terry Mac accept Cuccinelli’s generous offer. Why give Cuccinelli more time to make the right decision when he is determined to make the wrong one?

    Cuccinelli is saying to Terry: If you want to step out and back the governor’s swapping gas taxes for sales taxes as key to a transportation deal, be my guest. I say: Take the offer, say “Thank You” politely, and line up the movers to take your stuff to the Governor’s Mansion next January.

    In politics, the hardest thing to do is say YES, not NO. But you say: Cuccinelli looks like a sure loser, his latest book just more evidence. That’s what they said about Godwin and Wilder and Kaine if you check the polls. Why? Key parts of the electoral had serious problems with them on important policy issues. Godwin was a segregationist, yet he carried NOVA in the end. Wilder was seen as the ultimate urban politician, yet he owed his victory in the end to rural white voters not turning against him mass as they did against Democrats four years later. Kaine was supposedly way too liberal, starting with the death penalty and other things. Turned out he ran better than Warner in key parts of the state.

    Bottom line: They won in good measure because their opponents took victory for granted at the wrong points in time, not forcing their advantages.

    Yes, Cuccinelli is out today signing his book as opposed to signing on with his own governor on what McDonnell thinks is make or break for him. If Democrats lets him off that hook because they think the AG is already a sure loser, it could turn out to be the biggest political blunder since old line Democrats refused to offer an olive branch to Henry Howell in 1969, thus insuring the election of another Republican who couldn’t possibly win (Linwood Holton, seen as way too liberal a Republican for Virginia).

    That’s why I say: When your opponent is handing you victory, don’t refuse on policy grounds because you are sure he can’t win anyway.  

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