As I wrote yesterday, they might be able to go the populist route: but there is no indication they (1) are ready to do it, (2) have the talent to do it, (3) would be credible doing it, and (4) it would work. It has potential, but there is nothing in the record yet to say this strategy could be executed.
It is far more likely they would simply go the anti-tax mantra, claiming in effect that McDonnell and McAuliffe and Bolling are part of the "high tax lobby." Say what?
Like I say, the chances of that flying are 5% right now: and that's only because you got to leave a fudge factor in February for a race not actually up for a vote until November. Nine months is a long time. So stuff can happen.
But looking at things on a pure 200-proof basis: 95 out of 100 times, this kind of political chess board is going to cause a Democratic Party sweep. Bob McDonnell is now some high-tax liberal? Those making that charge would lose total credibility with the Virginians who approve of his performance as governor. When was the last time a Democratic candidate got beat because he had a Republican governor watching his back on the tax and transportation issue? Like never, anywhere.
Except for one problem: Senator Saslaw, and almost all other General Assembly Democrats, are adamantly opposed to the governor's transportation plan. They have any number of policy reasons. Many consider it simply morally wrong to go from the user fee concept to the sales tax; they feel it is too regressive.
Let me make three points:
First, going to a sales tax actually makes things less regressive, especially if you were to put a small refundable tax credit for the poor to deal with any such concerns. Do the math.
The Democrats abandoned the user fee concept in 1986 when backing the first sales tax for transportation, when they supported allowing localities to pass a local income tax for transportation, and when they supported allowing localities to levy a regional sales tax for transportation. So with all due respect, that ship has sailed.
Sometimes, you got to take Teddy Roosevelt's advice: The first thing a patriot may need to do is get himself or herself elected to office. So you pull back your jet skis a little. This doesn't make you a sellout.
Call me damaged goods: But frankly, I see only a phony moral dilemma here. There is no pure and perfect transportation policy. McDonnell's proposal, like any from Democrats generally or House Republicans specifically, is based on policy to the extent possible, and then politics to the extent unavoidable. It is now down to the 200-proof politics, like it or not.
So the choice is clear. If Democrats pass the House bill as is, game over unless Terry Mac is gonna be like the guys at City College in the 1950's, blowing a game they should have won because they got a little too cute in their "point shaving" scandal.
OR: Democrats can do what Senator Saslaw wants, help pass a different kind of transportation plan, built around higher taxes, out of the Senate, setting up a conference committee shootout with the House.
The governor's plan could conceivably be the default position of the Conference Committee. But all bets are off at that point: anything could happen including the whole thing going down in flames in both houses.
More to the point: Even if something passes, it might create such a fog of politics that a Republican could be against it without creating the statewide dynamic guaranteed by Senate Democrats supporting the governor's plan this week.
So the two choices provide starkly different pictures. One gives Democrats a clean, clear, line in the sand, putting their ticket and Governor McDonnell against the Tea Party wing of the GOP. If this isn't political heaven, then what is?
The other offers uncertainty, resting on the law of unexpected consequences. Saslaw has a good policy point. But he is on shaky political ground Call me chicken if you want: But I will stick with Coach Lombardi on this one. In politics, run to daylight. They are giving you a power sweep to the right side of the line.
Dems don't get this but once a century maybe. Why go left? Run down the field for a TD and then run out the clock. Come 2014, it is new cast of characters in Richmond and you got 4 years to indulge in the fruitless pursuit of policy purity.