| by Paul Goldman
Lt. Governor Bill Bolling has done the seemingly impossible: he has proposed what only be described as the Bill Bolling Bizzaro Transportation "compromise", combining the WORST POLITICAL ASPECTS of both the House/GUV plan and the Senate/DEM plan. Not only that: it doesn't make any policy sense either. So hopefully, since it is bad policy, we can agree to just discuss what really will matter in the end, the 200-proof politics of the transportation issue.
Here goes: Bizzaro Bill's politics on transportation call into question the accepted wisdom that a Bolling independent candidacy is guaranteed to take a lot of net-votes from Ken Cuccinelli. The accepted wisdom assumes - I have been guilty of this myself - Mr. Bolling had not been seduced by those press clippings heralding his "political sex change" from a loyal leader of the conservative Republican Caucus in the Senate - where he generally voted in concert with then Senator Cuccinelli - to the bizzaro Bill "moderate" Republican darling of the media.
Sure, Bolling would use the new "image" to his advantage. But the accepted wisdom had to assume when push came to shove, he didn't want to elect Cuccinelli, after all, the feud between the two is the motivating reason for the Bolling suicide mission. That is to say: Bolling would not actually believe all that media manipulation.
So much for assumption. The Bill Bolling Bizarro Transportation "Compromise" has got to have the McAuliffe campaign worried this morning, and the Cuccinelli team figuring that maybe God is a Republican, or at least he hasn't changed his registration to Democrat.
Why? Because it is clear Bolling actually is believing those press clippings, the LG really believes he is the "moderate" third guy in this race. This is incredibly bad news for Terry and incredible dumb luck for Ken. It is precisely what Democrats don't want: a second guy in the race pulling for the moderate voters unhappy with Cuccinelli.
I ask you: How else to explain his Bizzaro Bolling tranny plan, contained in a letter to the House/Senate conferees, unless the LG actually believes this "moderate" silliness?
First, in a shot at Governor Bob McDonnell, Mr. Bolling endorses the gas tax increase proposed by the Senate Democrats. Now one thing we know for sure: Governor McDonnell would have to be willing to totally reverse himself, angering his entire Republican base, undercutting his own reputation, by accepting the Bolling proposal BECAUSE it is exactly opposite of everything MCD has said now for weeks. How does the governor go from saying we needed to totally eliminate the gas tax to supporting a record gas tax increase without making it seem he has no governing principles whatsoever except take whatever deal he can get, including a plan that is basically just a big tax increase, nothing else?
If he wanted to that, why spend all this time trying to create a plan which has a tax cut element in it to give his conservative allies some political cover? Does Bolling not get this at all? Of course he does. But the "moderate" to Bolling means dinging both sides. THIS IS NOT GOOD FOR DEMOCRATS.
My bottom line: Bolling has taken a big shot at Governor McDonnell, essentially saying the fundamental building block of the governor's plan has to be scrapped, indeed wasn't a good idea in the first place. Even Cuccinelli hasn't gone that far, at least the AG is keeping silent, not supporting McDonnell but not publicly attacking his idea either.
Let me go further: Assume for some reason - I concede to be unable to fathom why House Republicans would back the Bolling plan which is simply a tax increase for transportation, a record one at that - the Bolling/Democratic gas tax idea gets through the House with a majority of Democratic votes. And assume further it is signed by McDonnell, over the objections of the conservative voters in the state of Virginia. No, take that back: over the vehement objections of his voting base, although not his financial base.
I ask you: How does this hurt Ken Cuccinelli? How does it hurt an anti-gas-tax-raising Cuccinelli in a race with two pro-gas tax opponents? Okay, you say: Terry could refuse to back the gas tax too. Hold that thought for now.
Remember: Cuccinelli can always then endorse the original McDonnell plan, calling for the total elimination of the gas tax, using every word McDonnell every spoke on the subject. But you say: This would could leave him vulnerable to a McDonnell/Bolling/McAuliffe/House Republican joint attack saying...what exactly? He opposes the very tax increase the governor and House GOP leaders have said for weeks isn't in the best interests of the state, and can't solve the transportation problem?
It is one thing to be against your own party and the political establishment when the politics makes it impossible for you to be a credible populist: quite another when the stance of the establishment makes that stance very credible to working class voters.
In terms of the latter scenario, tell me how that hurts, not helps, Cuccinelli at this point? Earth to the reporters of Virginia: The gas tax is not popular. By McDonnell's own rhetoric, an increase in the gas tax raises prices. Now yes, this is what the left side of the political spectrum thinks has to be done, raise the gas tax to save the planet. They may be right in the long run. But in the short run, a pro-gas tax candidate in 2013 might be dead.
Let me ask you: Bob McDonnell is forcing people in Tidewater to pay big new tolls, the Bolling/DEM plan wants to let local governments raise their local sales tax....and now Bolling and Democrats want to raise their state gas tax....at what point do you get a guaranteed voter backlash at the polls especially when Cuccinelli plays the "Road To Nowhere" card? Like maybe this November?
Maybe not: but if I were in Cuccinelli's shoes, I would be praying every night for the Bolling Bizzaro Plan to be enacted.
AND FOR ANOTHER REASON; The Bolling Bizzaro plan endorses the worst part of the MCD plan, the part where he wants to take 1/4% of the current sales tax that goes for education/mental health etc. and instead give it solely for transportation. THIS IS SOMETHING THE SENATE DEMOCRATS SIMPLY CAN NOT SUPPORT.
Cuccinelli is already opposed it. Bolling is now on record for it. Even the governor knows this isn't going to fly.
SO LET'S RECAP:
Conventional wisdom says Bolling is a pro-McAuliffe drone whose third party candidacy will hover atop Cuccinelli and then, in the last month of the campaign, drop down and wipe out the presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee. If not months before.
A perfectly reasonable and historically accurate assumption...UNTIL THIS MORNING.
When you actually get a chance to read the Bolling letter, his "moderate" delusion is, as Tom Cruise told Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men", crystal clear.
Bolling, the anti-tax guy for years, opposed to everything, is now on record for a record gas tax increase to fix transportation. Politically, there are now three general scenarios going forward.
1. Gas taxes go up instead of down as promised by the governor and the GOP leaders of the House of Delegate. Bolling will support them, Cuccinelli will oppose them. What does McAuliffe do? Does he break with GA Assembly Democrats? How can he, and allow Bolling to get all that editorial support, all the praise, basically what the LG wants in order to run. How can McDonnell credibility attack Cuccinelli if the AG says simply: Governor, I support your old plan, indeed, if elected, I will work to eliminate the gas tax and replace it with a fairer, revenue neutral plan. Ken gets to play the populist here. As I have written, this would seem to be his only chance right now in terms of a potentially winning message, even though he is a flawed messenger. This is a message that has proven to unite conservative voters in rural and Republican areas along with working class Democrats. ADVANTANGE K-MAN. It doesn't mean he wins. But when you are the underdog, any light at the end of the tunnel is a huge gift. .
2. Gas taxes stay the same, get cut a lot slated to be phased out, or totally eliminated while the sales tax goes up. I figure Bolling backs any compromise deal. But this doesn't help Bolling at all, he is still the high tax guy now, precisely what conservatives think the press means when they call someone a "moderate", just a high tax politician in sheep's clothing. Truth is, he will now be on record for record high gas taxes and a new record high in the sales tax. Forget the new "moderate" Bolling: let's go whole hog to the liberal Bolling. He can back these plans all he wants, but the gas tax sticks to him forever now. Terry backs any plan would be the best guess, what is his alternative, all the DEMS are on board, same with the GUV. Politically, the more the gas taxes are cut, the better: but I don't see the politics in Terry refusing to back a plan the House and Senate and GUV support. What does Ken do? It is a risky business to predict for sure. Surely he has to support total elimination, and a phase out: Unless he is gonna say this will actually enrich the Oil companies at the expense of the working class guy who will not get lower gas prices but will get higher sales taxes? But does this type of populist appeal work? I don't know, it has potential, but it may be too complicated an argument. What about the other scenarios? Predicting Ken on these is even more complicated. However, logic suggests: ADVANTAGE K-MAN here in (2) because Bolling's high tax image will not appeal to Republicans or Republican leaning independent likely to vote in November. .
3. There is No Deal. ADVANTAGE K-MAN for sure. Bolling is now stuck with his Bizzaro Plan, and is the high tax guy in the race, since why would Terry now back the DEM plan with record high gas taxes if he has stayed quite so far. But what plan will Terry back, he has to have one for the 2013 race? As we know, this is very tricky. Cuccinelli has his problems here too, but at least he can say he backed the failed Senate conservative plan, so you can't accuse him of not saying something in the GA Session. Terry, on the other hand, has been quite. This should mean the press hounds him first, and forces a response.
Historically, this has never helped anyone running for Governor since the newspaper editorial boards - all primed to back Terry - feel an obligation to show their "fairness" by hounding him to say he will raise taxes. Wilder and Warner followed my strategy for telling the ED boards NO. It worked. Kaine had the luxury of running on Warner's coattails, so the tax issue wasn't a big one in 2005. Deeds slipped on the tax issue, and Beyer opposed Gilmore's "No Car Tax" on principle: Beyer proved right but lost the Governorship.
So Terry is in a tough spot historically. Baliles, even riding Robb's popularity, said he wouldn't raise taxes. Like I way, the NO TAX position has never cost anyone any votes so far. .
Bolling is now "all-in" as a high tax guy for transportation. He can't retreat, moreover, is only chance of staying credible is to get favorable ink as the "moderate" willing to fix transportation and other things by telling the truth. If Bolling has been seduced by the media "fawning" so far, what happens when they actually write editorials saying he is the only one with the guts to tell it like it is on transportation?
This potentially leaves T-Man between Bolling to his left and K-Man to his right. On taxes, this has tended not to be the sweet spot, rather the hard spot. The middle position may work on other things, but on taxes, there isn't really any room.
Bottom line: A pro-gas tax Bolling, whose bizzaro plan actually allows Cuccinelli to win points by refusing to back cuts in education and mental funds, strikes me as BAD NEWS FOR TERRY in a three way race.
How does it help to have someone to your left on taxes, saying you don't have the guts to tell the people the truth? Cuccinelli now has a plausible non-social issue to explain Bolling's attack on him: we disagree on gas taxes, with prices going up, this is not the time to raise gas taxes.
But what is Terry's comeback to Bolling attacking the DEM nominee on transportation? If he comes out for higher taxes, then Cuccinelli gets the chess board he wants. If Terry says he won't raise taxes, he gains nothing on Cuccinelli but gives Bolling at least an issue.
And if Terry tries to straddle the line? That's the Deeds approach until of course it fell apart and Deeds endorsed higher taxes, which started a landslide defeat.
Bolling may in the end prove the conventional wisdom right, he may be on election day the third way anti-Cuccinelli guy. But if Bolling gets pegged as a high tax "moderate" who is also moderating his views on social issues, then I ask you: Why is everyone so sure he winds up taking more votes from Cuccinelli, not McAuliffe, on election day?
The Bolling Bizzaro transportation "compromise" tells me: He has lost his political moorings, and there is no telling right now whether he might actually hurt Terry and help Ken by running as an independent candidate for Governor.