Does Ken Cuccinelli Have Any Place in a Rebranded Republican Party?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 14 2013 7:34 PM

The Cuccinelli Manifesto

Virginia’s attorney general doesn’t fit the Republican rebranding. He is ultraconservative and undaunted.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks at a campaign rally.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s secret is simple: He runs when things are good for Republicans

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Serious question: When was the last time a politician wrote a policy manifesto right before a campaign, and it didn’t do irreparable damage to his internal organs? Sen. Rick Santorum published It Takes A Family right before his 2006 re-election bid, and Democrats plumbed his pre-Vatican II views to destroy him. Gov. Rick Perry published Fed Up!, then ran for president and looked dazzled when Republican voters rejected his “Ponzi scheme” take on Social Security. (To be fair, Perry always looked dazzled.)

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

On Jan. 30, two weeks before The Last Line of Defense hit shelves and Kindle apps, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s own book was leaked to the Washington Post. In it, Cuccinelli would “echo Romney’s 47 percent” remarks, writing that Medicare, Social Security, and “outright welfare” all “make people dependent on government,” sapping the country’s verve. “Romney’s words, captured on a hidden camera, helped sink his campaign,” pointed out the paper, helpfully. “Time will tell how the similar language plays for Cuccinelli.”

The Washington Post keeps waiting for the time when Cuccinelli will be sunk. It never comes. “He doubts the science of global warming,” wrote the paper in a 2009 editorial, endorsing his opponent in the attorney general race. “He peddles outmoded, half-baked and prejudicial theories about homosexuals.” He won by 15 points. He spooked any possible Republican rival out of this year’s gubernatorial race—they remembered 2009, when Gadsen-flag-waving Cuccinelli fans took over the state party convention—and in the most recent poll, he’s winning.

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Cuccinelli’s secret is simple: He runs when things are good for Republicans. Virginia holds state elections in odd-numbered years, so their A-team—Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Cuccinelli—haven’t ever fought the tide of Obama turnout. In 2009, Virginia’s electorate was 78 percent white and 40 percent “conservative”; in 2012, those numbers fell to 70 percent and 31 percent. His Democratic foe this year will be Terry McAuliffe, who has all the populist appeal of a long-lost Romney brother. The biggest threat to a Cuccinelli governorship comes from Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who keeps threatening to run as an independent, and warns that Cuccinelli’s new tome will give Democrats “ammunition” to destroy him.

If that’s the case, then 2013 will be the year the Tea Party finally croaks. Cuccinelli is the Tea Party in one body, an underrated and likeable politician who sees it as his mission on earth to unwind government power. He was, he constantly reminds us, the first state attorney general to sue the federal government over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. “After I was elected, but before I was sworn in as attorney general,” he was on the phone with other AGs about how to do this, no matter what was in the bill. Five minutes after President Obama signed it, Cuccinelli—trailed by TV cameras—walked over to Richmond’s federal courthouse to file the suit.

“It was not until later that evening,” recalls Cuccinelli, “after the suit was filed, the calls of the day had been made, and all the media interviews were finished—that I realized that day, March 23, 2010, was the 235th anniversary to the day of Patrick Henry’s ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech … which he gave in Richmond, Virginia … just one mile away down the very same street from the federal courthouse.” The ellipses are his, meant to evoke the moment. “I was just thankful to God that this time we fought with arguments in the courtrooms of America, and not with bullets on the bloody battlefields of war.”

The bulk of his book recounts the history of the health care lawsuit, which the attorneys general lost—and which Cuccinelli, who sued the government independently of the main AG coalition, lost even more decisively. He tells the history that became less than relevant after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision, the tale of the Obama administration fumbling and getting constantly outmatched. “At several points, Justice Kagan seemed to try to ‘carry’ Solicitor General Verrilli through his own argument, as he tried to make useful points,” he writes. He high-fives Justice Samuel Alito for a comparison—health care costs to burial costs—that didn’t end up impressing anyone. “In one short question, Justice Alito utterly decimated the ‘logic’ of the federal government’s explanation of the supposed ‘uniqueness’ of the health care market.”

Why did the good guys lose? Cuccinelli decides that the game was rigged against them. The media—he mentions columnists like Richard Cohen, excerpting their calumnies—never told the truth about the law, or the mandate to buy health insurance. “Imagine how apoplectic the big-government statists would get if Congress voted to force everyone to buy a gun,” he harrumphs. In his reading, conservatives absolutely won the argument, but President Obama—the head of a “group of lawbreakers”—browbeat the court into caving. “The possibility that Chief Justice Roberts flip-flopped to uphold [the Affordable Care Act] will encourage future bullying by presidents,” he writes, citing CBS News’s report on deliberations that didn’t quite go this way. “Why? Because it looks as if it worked.”

In his telling, Cuccinelli only loses in courts—federal court, the court of public opinion—if no one pays attention to the Constitution. Why would they pay attention? They’re lulled into obedience. They don’t understand that “every single thing government does to increase its own power increases the size of its slice of the liberty pie,” and “since there are only two slices, every time the government’s slice of liberty pie grows, the citizens’ slice is reduced.”

The people responsible are either liars or dupes. In shorter chapters about his quest to get—then, one assumes, debunk—climate change data, Cuccinelli suggests that “climate researchers may have given up the purity of science to forward a global warming agenda … simply for the research money.” After all, “when researchers in the field of climatology predicted a global warming doomsday, governments were willing to shovel lots of money in their direction to try to find ways to stop it.” They fudge data; they fail to understand that CO2 is “the gas we all exhale from our bodies every second of every day.”

Nothing in this book puts Cuccinelli apart from the median Republican governor. All this week, while he was doing book interviews, Republican governors in blue states were rejecting the federal government’s offer of Medicaid funding. The government would pay 100 percent of the Medicaid expansion provided by Obamacare through 2014, and 90 percent in the first years thereafter. “I likened this to the old Black Flag ‘Roach Motel’ roach traps for the states,” writes Cuccinelli. “Once you check in, you never check out.” Through 2022, taking the money would cost his state $2 billion.

And to what end? The early, campaign-ready excerpts got Cuccinelli’s philosophy right, but they didn’t tell his origin story. He, too, once suffered from unexpected health care costs. His father lost insurance; his mother fell ill. But the Cuccinellis, wary of slicing the Liberty Pie, downsized their lives. “The last thing my parents thought about doing was asking the government to force other people to pay our bills,” he writes. “The lesson that life isn’t necessarily fair and that it’s not government’s job to make it fair is worth learning early in life.”

The party that holds the White House typically loses the off-year elections. In 2013, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is leading by up to 40 points in the polls after—back to Cuccinelli’s metaphor—carving a slice of the Freedom Pie to pay for his state’s post-hurricane recovery. Then there’s Virginia, where the Republican candidate considers that sort of behavior downright anti-Jeffersonian. And he’s never lost an election.