You have to hand it to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. He made the definitive argument in last night’s debate against his Democratic gubernatorial opponent Terry McAuliffe. The Post reports:

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post) Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Cuccinelli repeatedly returned to what he described as a lack of substance in McAuliffe’s policy blueprints, and he accused him of making promises he couldn’t back up.

“Those are platitudes. They’re not plans,” Cuccinelli said. “I like those too. I like education. I like puppies. But I don’t bring a puppy home if I don’t have a plan for how I’m going to deal with that puppy. … And he’ s all puppy and no plan.”

In other words, even if you can live with McAuliffe’s lack of government experience, his shady business deals and his government-by-cronyism outlook, he has very little to offer Virginia in the way of concrete proposals or uplifting vision. He makes deals. He’s a great salesman. But to what end?

No matter how we might wish for McAuliffe to be the good Bill Clinton (policy wonk, creative compromiser, etc.), he is, undeniably, the bad Bill Clinton (self-absorbed, prone to skating the rules, influence peddler). He really was best suited as head of the Democratic National Committee and as chief fundraiser. In this election he’s exhibited no seriousness of purpose, no road map for the state and no ethical discipline. If the last few months of scandal were the worst in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s term and recent Virginia politics, one fears they will look like the good old days once McAuliffe gets there. We scratch McAuliffe off the list.

Cuccinelli, however, once again failed to demonstrate that he’ll be a mainstream chief executive for the state, focusing on the state’s day-to-day issues. He has already shown his preference for policies and rhetoric that plays well to the national right-wing audience but is off-putting and divisive when it comes to state politics. After months of an election, voters are justified in wondering if he will adhere to the transportation deal constructed, however imperfectly by McDonnell, and if he’ll disregard more vital issues (e.g. education) in favor of more tax cuts and even more spending cuts than his frugal predecessor. McDonnell, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner were centrist, reform-minded and tolerant, the qualities that made Virginia politics infinitely more effective and than the politics from the gang across the Potomac. Cuccinelli appears more inclined to import that D.C. dysfunction and political polarization into Virginia. We scratch Cuccinelli off the list.

That leaves two choices — not voting for the governor or voting for libertarian Robert Sarvis. I appreciate the argument that Sarvis is unqualified and that we should expect candidates for the state’s highest office to obtain relevant experience before throwing their hat into the ring (although he has no less experience than Terry McAuliffe.) That said, having interviewed him and followed his public statements, I am confident he is pragmatic, serious and forward-looking. Of all the candidates he actually has the most appealing vision: “Open-minded and open for business.” That comes closest to the ethos that brought many of us to the “new Virginia.” We don’t want to turn Virginia into Maryland (high tax, anti-business), but we want to live in a tolerant, diverse state that will be on the cutting edge of the nation’s economy.

Now, to be candid, there is also utility in voting for Sarvis as opposed to leaving the ballot blank for governor. The state Republican Party made the decision to hold a nominating convention with 5,000 of the most hardcore Republicans rather than have an open primary. As a result, the more moderate Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling dropped out of the race, handing the nomination to Cuccinelli. The insularity of the state insiders is driving the state party over the cliff. After November there is likely to be a Democratic governor and lieutenant governor joining the two Democratic U.S. senators. The message to state GOP insiders — namely, that fiscal conservatives have other options (e.g. Sarvis) and that closed conventions are ineffective in selecting candidates who can win in the general election — is best delivered by providing Sarvis with a healthy vote total.

The idea that one is “throwing your vote” away on Sarvis is not one that holds up to scrutiny. Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have to earn votes. In this case it is hard to argue they have done anything more than highlight the bankruptcy of the two parties in Virginia. Really, in the land of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, this is the best we can do?