David Reynolds: Tea, Cuccinelli and me
Moments in political history are hard to spot. However, I think I may have spotted one ten months ago. On Friday, February 10, 2012, at around 2:15 pm, there was a changing of the Old Guard of the Grand Old Party of the Old Dominion. That’s a lot of old. But that’s Virginia. Its past is never past.
On that day in history we saw Virginia’s GOP take a step to the right. As they say in romance novels, it was the start of something big. The establishment moved out. The tea party moved in. Local committees changed hands. And the long planned party primary for 2013 was about to fall. The elephant party will not have a primary next year. And you know what they will be serving at that convention in Richmond? Tea.
Let’s set the moment. It took place during Washington & Lee University’s 2012 Mock Convention. The governor of Virginia had just addressed the student run convention. After concluding his remarks he descended the stage. At the same time his attorney general was making his climb up. The two men forced a cool smile as they met on the steps. One had already arrived on the big stage. The other wanted to be there, to follow in Patrick Henry’s shoes. The AG took a step to the right while the governor kept to the center. The temperature in the hall dropped. Nothing was said. It had already been said.
What was already said was Attorney General Cuccinelli’s earlier surprise announcement that he was running for governor, thus upsetting Mr. McDonnell’s nice little prior agreement with his Lt. Governor, Mr. Bolling, about who should be first to sit in the governor’s chair. Bolling drew the short straw. McDonnell would run in 2009; Bolling in 2013.
Now we know that 2013 with never come for Bill Bolling. Before you criticize Bill Bolling’s withdrawal from the governor’s race, keep in mind that you need to possess a large degree of cockiness in order to be a politician. President Kennedy once remarked that every mother wants their child to grow up to be president, but they never want their children to be politicians. Maybe Bill is too nice a guy, has too much Southern humility, to do what it takes to grab the brass ring in Virginia politics.
So, let’s talk about the man left standing, the ambitious man who bumped Bill Bolling out of the big chair, Ken Cuccinelli. Two things are apparent. One, he is a tea party favorite. And two, he plays by the rule that drives most successful politicians: “The Rule of Me.” The party comes second. Still, did Mr. Cuccinelli not realize that you do not break up an agreement between two Virginia gentlemen? How ungentlemanly.
As a result, Mr. Cuccinelli should not be confused with his party’s most recent candidate for president. I’ll borrow Dick Morris’s convention joke to explain. Three men walk into a bar. The first one was a liberal, the second a moderate and the third a conservative. The bartender says, “Hello Mitt.” Ken Cuccinelli will always be the third man. Republicans will soon find out whether placing their money on a true conservative is a winning bet.
We had an opportunity to talk to the AG after his Mock Con address on the limits of government and federalism, a talk, by the way, suitable for either a political convention or a law school lecture. I kicked off our short chat by saying, ‘God bless the Italians!’ He laughed. Cuccinelli told us why he decided to run for governor. That is, before his anointed time. It’s not personal, he said, “We are friends,” referring to Bill Bolling of the same party. But are Bolling and Cuccinelli of the same party? You decide. Cuccinelli sees a Republican Party that is too negative, one that has lost its bearing and its muscle. And, thus, its way. It has become the party of no, he said. He wants the elephant to run on its principles, not go off to some burial ground. That will be no easy trick.
Now, all we have to do is wait for all the out-of-state money to pour into Virginia, to pour into the coffers of Republican Cuccinelli and his likely opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe. If you didn’t care for being in a battleground state with a saturation of political ads on television in 2012, wait until 2013. Only two states, Virginia and New Jersey, will have state-wide elections to keep a bored national press corps awake. And here there will be two political pros in the ring going at each other until the last man is standing. There will be no three-in-one Republican running for governor. There will be an Italian with fire in his belly.
Will Cuccinelli win in November? If so, will it be a historic turning point? After all, McDonnell won by twenty percentage points as a Republican four years earlier. But you can throw 2009 out of window. As they say in financial circles, past performance is not an indicator of future results. Or as any good historian will tell you, an event can not be properly judged historical until well after it happens.
Don’t you love politics? It imitates life. It happens at fast forward, but can only be understood in slow reverse.