Thursday, December 27, 2012

Will Cuccinelli's Refusal to Resign as Attorney General Prove Fatal to His Campaign?

For decades the political custom has been that sitting Virginia attorney generals who have run for governor have resigned from the position as attorney general in order to campaign full time and avoid the appearance that (i) the dispensation of justice by the AG's office is political and (ii) that taxpayers are being forced to finance the candidate's campaign via the AG's salary.  Not surprisingly, Ken "Kookinelli" Cuccinelli thinks that he is above the unspoken political rules - actually, rules and even the Virginia and U. S. constitutions in general - and has refused to resign his office.  A piece in Blue Virginia looks at how this might prove fatal to Kookinelli's campaign.  Here are highlights:

But again: appearances matter in the law. Justice is suppose to be blind to such factors. Those responsible for the conduct of our legal system have to accept the importance of this ideal.

Moreover, the AG is by law a full-time position with real authority under the Constitution of Virginia. When the public sees someone campaigning full time for governor - as is required - they naturally want to know why this person is being paid a full-time AG's salary. The media will ask. There is no answer that will pass the "smell" test.

in politics, as in business, the customer is always right in that regard. Thus in politics, the winning candidate tries not to give voters a reason to question their judgment, moreover leave himself or herself vulnerable to the inevitable Murphy's law of politics: "Stuff happens."
Accordingly, AG Jerry Baliles in 1985, Mary Sue Terry in 1993, Jim Gilmore in 1997, Mark Earley in 2001, Jerry Kilgore in 2005 and Bob McDonnell in 2009 all resigned while seeking the governorship. They did it at different times in the election year, each calculating the right moment to make the move depending on how they saw the pluses and minuses of holding the post at any point in time.

But they all did it: because when you do the political math, it is the only smart play given game theory. In that regard, they weren't merely doing the mental math of politics: they had a concrete example of what can happen if you try to outsmart common sense.

In 1981, Republican Attorney General Marshall Coleman refused to resign as AG. There were several reasons for his decision, one having to do with money: He didn't have much of it and thus needed the paycheck. Yet the money issue isn't really that big a thing in VA politics: The voters accept the AG resigning, and joining a law firm, being paid a good salary without actually doing any real work. Yes, there is always the appropriate fig leaf of claiming he or she actually does work to earn the paycheck. But give Virginians a break: we aren't dumb. Besides, the role of big law firms in lobbying and having sway over a governor is known to us. We accept that as part of the realities of politics. So they pay a buddy money to run. If he wins, they were going to get a lot of business from him anyway even if he were independently wealthy.

EVERY AG HAS SEEN THE LIGHT...Because they saw what happened to Coleman. By not resigning, Mr. Coleman gave Democrats - and his opponents inside the GOP - a way to keep him on the defensive for the entire campaign. It was a continuous drip, drip, drip, of criticism, even the biggest boulder can be whittled down to a small rock by such constant erosion.

Finally, after months of the drip, drip, drip, Coleman announced that he was going to accept only half-salary. But instead of ending the debate over his refusal to resign, his actions only proved the point: he couldn't do the AG's job and campaign for governor at the same time. Bottom line: Coleman's refusal to resign showed bad judgment. In political terms, he took a risk way out of proportion with the potential gain.

Cuccinelli would show extremely bad judgment, for the post of governor, by failing to resign. Why? Because the only reason for him not to resign is to make some obscure ideological or personal point about some imagined philosophic issue or refusing to be pressured by the media, and the like.

This may make him happy, this may make him a hero to his base, but it doesn't show the judgment to be governor at this point in Virginia's history. He would daring McDonnell to criticize him, and he would be daring Democrats to use McDonnell's words to criticize him.

Net, net: If Cuccinelli actually intends to stay on the job through the election, then it will prove to be a metaphor for his campaign in my view. He will be seen as putting his personal and political ideology ahead of what was good for the people of the state who don't want their legal system drawn into partisan politics if it can be avoided.  In the end, voters wants to see if you see the job as a "me" thing, or a "we" thing.
The perverse side of me hopes that Cuccinelli refuses to resign through until the end.  He is a clear and present danger to Virginia's future and, in my view, belongs in a mental ward, not the Governor's mansion.

No comments: