The Campaign Spot

A Dull Debate, Recycling Tired Attack Lines

Also from today’s Morning Jolt:

If You Missed Last Night’s Virginia Gubernatorial Debate . . . Good for You!

So why did Terry McAuliffe run for governor?

His main job since the mid-1990s has been to be Bill Clinton’s buddy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — you get to play a lot of golf, meet a lot of wealthy, interesting people, and people are eager to do business with you, because they figure someday you’ll invite them to hang around with the president and Hillary, too. (Yes, McAuliffe was DNC chair for his party’s sterling period from 2001 to 2005.) Consciously or not, he’s like Doug Band — selling, or at least trading access to the former president and the likely 2012 Democratic presidential candidate.

Terry McAuliffe has never been a policy wonk. He’s a passionate partisan — again, nothing inherently wrong with that; functioning political parties need passionate partisans to work in their ranks, fire up the crowd, and raise the money. But his political philosophy is simply, “my guys are right, and the other guys are wrong.” It’s hard to find a time he strongly disagreed with his own party; he apparently disagreed with his party on gun control back when he was DNC chair, but his opposition didn’t seem to have much influence or effect. And now he’s running on gun control this year, calculating that stance will help him more in the D.C. suburbs than it will hurt him downstate.

Every time McAuliffe whiffs a candidate event because he didn’t do the homework, it confirms the suspicion that McAuliffe wants the job of governor . . . just because he wants to be taken seriously, and not just seen as “the money guy.” But apparently he doesn’t want the job badly enough to actually study the issues.

Wednesday night’s debate offered lines and arguments that are extremely familiar — hell, let’s just say, exhaustingly tired and worn out — to anyone who’s been paying attention to this race.

McAuliffe, who has spent his life’s work as a Democratic party fundraiser and operative, pitched himself as the voice of bipartisanship in Virginia. He, who has done more to connect wealthy donors and lawmakers than perhaps any other man in American history, lambasted his rival for taking $18,000 in gifts from a wealthy owner of a medical supplement company. He, who has dumped a large fortune on negative ads, decried the negative tone of the campaign. McAuliffe, who spent much of 2012 insisting Mitt Romney had to release his tax returns, said he had done enough by releasing summaries of his finances for the past few years.

But McAuliffe was able to hide his not-gonna-worry-about-the-details approach to policy for most of the night. Debates only require candidates to remember a couple of talking points on each issue, and Terry McAuliffe can do that quite well. You can almost see him checking the boxes in his mind: Nanotechnology, community colleges, invest in education . . . mention the family . . .  “His tax cuts will mean financial ruin for the state.” We need to invest. Invest. Invest, invest, invest.

Credit where it’s due, McAuliffe avoided lapsing into old habits and telling voters they could qualify for an HB-5 visa if they invested $500,000 in GreenTech Automotive.

But I can see why Ken Cuccinelli is trailing this race. His persona on the stump is even-keeled to the point of boredom. I suspect that if any undecided voters were tuned in to NBC at 7 p.m. last night, they found Cuccinelli robot-like, reminiscent of the early Mitt Romney models.

I wasn’t thrilled with Cuccinelli’s answer on why he accepted $18,000 in gifts from Johnny Williams. Cuccinelli emphasized that he realized he had failed to report the gifts and alerted state authorities, and asked whether anyone believed McAuliffe would do the same in those circumstances.

But most of us will never get a gift, or a group of gifts, worth $18,000 from someone we don’t know that well, or even from our closest of friends. McAuliffe’s gift attack suggests to low-information voters that Cuccinelli works in a world where fabulously wealthy well-connected businessmen and grifters throw around money to ensure government policies protect their interests — which is pretty much the world of McAuliffe’s entire adult life.


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