by Paul Goldman
Here at 200-proof, we have had enough success to feel comfortable admitting what we don't know. So we stand in awe of those who seem to know everything. Especially the latest: who is going to get blamed for any federal government shutdown. We aren't that smart. No way. But we aren't without common sense at least. Meaning that we learn from mistakes and that means both your own along with those of others.
Case in point: Chris LaCivita, the strategy dude for Ken Cuccinelli. The looming federal government shutdown shows why his strategy has taken Cuccinelli from a landslide win in the first Post Poll to a landslide loss in the latest. We aren't saying either poll is right in terms of the outcome predicted. But that's not the lesson. Tather, the lesson is to learn why there has been such a huge reversal, why a campaign has turned Cuccinelli from a guy with decent job and personal approval to the most disliked major party candidate for Governor EVER in the modern era.
How did the AG go from a guy with a good image to a guy with an image so bad, it takes the likes of E.W. Jackson to make him look good in comparison. What went wrong?
That's easy: LaCivita's strategy has kept Cuccinelli on the defensive from Day #1. From the moment he beat Bill Bolling so badly in the early maneuvering that the LG dropped out of the GOP GUV nomination race, Cuccinelli has found himself on the defensive day after day, on every possible issue of the day or week or month. The big win over Bolling became a big time problem overnight.
There are only two lessons certain for the last year in VA politics. One, there would be some story on the Governor's race. And two, in that story, Cuccinelli would find himself on the defensive. This isn't to say Terry McAuliffe had it easy, as he got bashed most of the times too.
But LaCivita managed to adopt THE WORST possible strategy. The result: it kept his man both as the center of attention and also on the defensive day after day. "Do you wanna piece of me?" should be the Cuccinelli theme song, aka Brittany Spears.
To me, the looming shutdown of the federal government symbolizes the Cuccinelli/LaCivita blunder, entirely avoidable I should add. They adopted this strategy after careful review. Amazing. Why?
It is clear the LaCivita strategy for winning has been based in good measure on using Cuccinelli's headline-making fight against Obamacare as the key closing positive issue. Back in April, this made perfect sense to Chris. The Obamacare exchanges were do to open tomorrow, October 1. The law is unpopular among the key groups any Republican needs to win, especially Cuccinelli. The LaCivita strategy assumed there would be massive "free" attention given to the law, and that this would allow them to use their resources in the last month to help Cuccinelli ride this wave - also tied to the Medicaid expansion/budget resources - issues all way through the last weeks of the campaign.
With TMac squarely on the other side of Cuccinelli on these issues, the dramatic contrast fit the only strategy LaCivita does in politics. But Chris, a war veteran, forgpt the first rule of warfare: the battle plan lasts until the battle begins. This is the oldest rule in warfare, it explains why troops, not generals, win battles; why captains in a forward position, not guys with ribbons and stars safely back at HQ, are the keys to victory.
That is to say; Just as LaCivita's strategy, the one that has held the Cuccinelli campaign hostage for months, is about to start, "stuff happens" as they say. "Buddy, gonna shut you down" from the line from the old Beach Boys song. Or put another way: LaCivita now has a strategy he doesn't control, as the whole Obamacare/Medicaid expansion debate has been hijacked by Washington. Like I say, we at 200-proof applaud those who are so smart they can tell us how it will all play out.
All we have done over the course of these months is say that our analysis pointed to a Democratic sweep this year when the other gurus were claiming a "sure" Cuccinelli victory, NOT because we are smart, but rather because we simply try to be honest observers. And what we observed was a Cuccinelli/LaCivita strategy that NEVER TOOK THE OFFENSE. You don't win that way.
Political math is simple: You don't win votes on the defensive, you don't win votes when you have to explain your position over and over. That's lose-lose. If you have an 11-point lead in the polls, you might be able to run a defensive strategy and fall across the finish line in first place by 2 points. It happens. But only if you have a solid lead at first.
Thus the symbolism of the looming shutdown as regards Cuccinelli and LaCivita. First, it has stolen the "play" from Cuccinelli, and thus he has lost control of the Obamacare issue after months of betting the "ranch" on having October 1 be the start of his Obamacare end game. Cuccinelli has lost the offensive, and is now at the mercy of the political gods. It might still work out for him; the public is so unhappy with all sides, anything could happen if the shutdown gets out of hand, especially with the debt ceiling debt due to be teed up shortly.
Or put another way: As the campaign enters its crucial closing weeks, the Cuccinelli/LaCivita strategy plotted for months is in real danger of being overshadowed big time by a shutdown that redefines the Obamacare debate for most people, and then a debt ceiling debate.
It could be that the President's image suffers some more damage, driving his favorables to the 40% level. That should be good for Cuccinelli under normal circumstances. BUT the problem for Cuccinelli is that McDonnell's image has taken the biggest hit in NOVA, which in turn is the area of the state most attuned to the shutdown debate in DC. Thus, to the extent that the GOP in Congress and the GOP Governor help offset the President's upside numbers in NOVA, it may not help Cuccinelli at all. Given that NOVA is a key to any Democratic win, the shutdown threatens to hurt, not help, Cuccinelli in the very geographic area he can't afford any more slippage. Anything driving his image to the "my way or the highway" view hurts him.
Secondly, to the extent the narrative talks about the Republicans seeming inability to "govern", this is very difficult for Cuccinelli running for an executive post. To me, the LaCivita strategy has failed the biggest by costing Cuccinelli the positive job ratings he had in the Spring.
This is a malpractice-level blunder. True, the polls say the AG is seen has having the better experience. But this matrix hasn't won an governor's election EVER in Virginia. This is especially true for a guy like Cuccinelli, whose claim to the GUV job requires him to be seen as an anti-establishment "man of the people" type of fiscal conservative. You can't both run as the rebel, and then as the guy with the most experience in the establishment government!
That this problem has bedeviled Cuccinelli is evidence by his constantly failed attempts to be the anti-establishment candidate, yet the AG who defends the tolls, the transportation taxes and the like of the establishment political class in Richmond. ACDC worked for ACDC, but that was a rock band.
THUS, the LaCivita strategy blunder is seen clearly again through the shutdown storm clouds. Cuccinelli is again caught in the middle, forced to be against Obamacare as everyone else on Cruz control, but at the same time against a shutdown. Terry gets to take a clean line.
As we have written, Cuccinelli would have been better off being fish or fowl, take a clean position on a clean CR or not, one way or the other, let people know where you stand in a way that they can get a clear image of you. But again, his strategy risks getting Cuccinelli the worst of both worlds: he is seen as an ideologue by his opponents, and as a blurred line by too many of those who should be strongly out there working for him.
Like the GOP in Congress, the problem with the strategy is this: You are constantly on the defensive no matter what you do. Conservatives blame the press for this. If only it were that simple. Right now, Americans want less drama. That's why they elected Obama. The Bush Presidency was one fight after another. This is Obama's risk right now; the independents are tired of the drama, they want the government to function, they don't want to keep reading and seeing the dysfunction. The public may decide not to blame one side or the other. Thus, they could easily blame both sides sufficiently enough to give neither side a clear edge when the shutdown smoke and possibly fire end.
For an underdog to be elected Governor, he is going to need a clean closing message, not one with all this other stuff attached. That's the Cuccinelli/LaCivita blunder in my view at this moment. They have kept digging, month after month, convinced that in the end, come October 1, their message would be ready to deliver.
So they stayed on the defensive, always finding a move that kept them on the defensive, always forcing them to explain this or that, yada, yada, yada. It has been one double-down after another. But this morning, this is where things stand. The LaCivita strategy has put Cuccinelli at the mercy of events. That is not where you want to be heading into the last month of a campaign down in the polls. And yet that's exactly where Ken Cuccinelli finds himself as September turns to October...