Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s attorney general, Republican candidate for governor and tea party hero, is a man under siege — and that’s just the way he likes it.
He has become a target of ridicule from pundits on the right; in February, for instance, Joe Scarborough called him “certifiable when it comes to mainstream political thought.” He is being challenged in his own state, where a pair of Northern Virginia business leaders recently berated him as out of touch. Things have gotten so bad that Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling has refused to endorse Cuccinelli, even though he decided not to launch an independent bid against him.
A good bit of Cuccinelli’s predicament comes from the release of his book, “The Last Line of Defense,” an extended attack on what he sees as the criminal overreach of the Obama administration — a group he unsubtly describes in the title of Chapter 1 as “The Biggest Set of Lawbreakers in America.” Moderate Republicans worry that “The Last Line of Defense” places Cuccinelli out of the mainstream while handing Democrats endless fodder to use against him. It’s never a good sign when your opponents hold a news conference, as Democrats in Richmond did, to take turns reading aloud from your book.
But Cuccinelli, who rose to prominence with his opposition to a 2002 plan to raise regional taxes to fund transportation projects, has always drawn energy from standing up for what he believes, no matter the consequence. He was tea party long before the tea party existed. And in “Last Line,” he makes clear that he aims to be tea party well after the tea party, too.
Cuccinelli writes that the Obama administration has sought to “exercise control over the American people that it didn’t have the authority to exercise, and in the process it trampled the sovereignty of the states, violated federal law, ignored federal courts and violated the Constitution to achieve its goals of redistributing wealth, concentrating power in Washington, and rewarding its political allies.”
“Last Line” is not a particularly welcoming book. Those who don’t embrace Cuccinelli’s point of view are dismissed as naive or, as he puts it, “asleep.” It reads a little like talk radio sounds — loud, one-sided and at wit’s end. It is more a justification for what Cuccinelli has done than an invitation to join the cause.
He takes on the Federal Communications Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and other parts of the federal government, but the heart of his case and the bulk of his book are dedicated to his greatest defeat — his failed attempt to stop President Obama’s health-care overhaul from becoming law. He makes clear that this is a fight he has not abandoned, though many of his fellow conservatives have moved on.
As Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), an equally fervent critic of the Affordable Care Act, put it in February: “It doesn’t matter what I believe. The Supreme Court made its decision. We had an election in the fall, and the public made their decision. Now the president’s health-care law is the law.” For Cuccinelli, however, what he believes is all that matters, and in this regard he repeatedly seeks to place himself in line with the founding fathers.
“Patrick Henry’s hard-fought effort is a lesson for everyone who fights for principles,” he writes of the early Virginian’s opposition to the original Constitution. “The lesson is that we don’t always win on the first round, but that doesn’t mean we go home and stop trying.”
Politically, Cuccinelli has been criticized for echoing Mitt Romney’s assertion that 47 percent of Americans feel entitled to government giveaways. In one passage, he writes of “bad politicians,” saying: “One of their favorite ways to increase their power is by creating programs that dispense subsidized government benefits, such as Medicare, Social Security, and outright welfare (Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing and the like). These programs make people dependent on government. And once people are dependent, they feel they can’t afford to have the programs taken away, no matter how inefficient, poorly run, or costly to the rest of society.”
Cuccinelli sums up his view at the end of the book, where he presents the “liberty pie,” a construct he created “to illustrate the relationship between the individual and the government.”
“Every single thing government does to increase its own power increases the size of its slice of the liberty pie,” he writes. “Since there are only two slices, every time the government’s slice of the liberty pie grows, the citizens’ slice is reduced.”
It does not take an overly active imagination, however, to think of instances — from funding the interstate highway system to passing civil rights legislation — when government has used its power precisely to increase the liberty of citizens.
It can be easy to misjudge Cuccinelli as an extreme right-winger, out of touch with even his own party. In many ways, though, he is everything you could want in a politician. He knows what he believes, makes his case, sticks to it and, once elected, does exactly what he said he would do. He’s personally engaging, and if you spend time with him, it’s easy to gain an appreciation for his views and how he came to have them.
Cuccinelli’s appeal is evident in his book, too. Even amid the bluster and self-aggrandizement, it’s not hard to see his point that the health-care law is flawed and the way it was defended in court was contradictory, at best. The problem for Cuccinelli, at least in the context of his race for governor, is that much of it seems beside the point. What does any of it have to do with his vision for the state? Why are we relitigating these issues now?
Cuccinelli’s answer came in a newspaper interview in 2011. “I have a real sense I have a role to play,” he writes, quoting himself. “I have a purpose to my role in political contests and it is to pursue the vision of the Founders in the 21st century.”
If he seems a little defensive in “The Last Line of Defense,” it is perhaps because, for all his national prominence and electoral success, he has yet to make much of a mark on Virginia. He concedes as much on his campaign Web site, where he says of his time as attorney general that he has “become best known for his efforts to preserve liberty and defend the US Constitution.” Early polls put him in a tight race with Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Aside from his deep support among conservatives and his political skills, Cuccinelli has an inherent advantage because Virginia elects its governors the year after the United States elects its presidents. The past ninegovernors have been from the party out of power in the White House, in part because they were able to campaign against Washington — just as Cuccinelli and other Republicans campaigned against Obama’s health-care plan four years ago. With guns, immigration, the budget and other divisive issues on the Washington agenda this year, there may be plenty of opportunities for Cuccinelli to position himself against a dysfunctional Washington. The question is whether Virginians worried about one extreme are likely to seek refuge in the other.
So far, voters have given Cuccinelli no reason to question his beliefs or his approach. He was elected to the state Senate three times in a conservative part of Fairfax County, but in largely blue Fairfax nonetheless. And in 2009, at the height of the tea party wave, he won more votes for attorney general than any Virginian before him. True to tea party form, he hung a Gadsden flag in his office.
Cuccinelli is running this time in a world that has changed considerably since the tea party fervor of his last election. The convincing victories of Obama and other Democrats last year have prompted some Republicans to rethink their hard-line positions. In Virginia, Cuccinelli’s party has shifted, too. Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers backed a transportation plan by Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell that raises the sales tax and other levies. The plan includes a regional tax increasethat looks an awful lot like the one Cuccinelli rose to oppose all those years ago.
Cuccinelli has given no indication that he intends to change — rather that the changes around him are just the latest evidence that he needs to build an even firmer last line of defense. If there is any political takeaway from his book, it is that Cuccinelli believes he doesn’t represent merely a strong strain of Virginia thought, but a winning one, too.
Steven Ginsberg is the national political editor at The Washington Post.
THE LAST LINE OF DEFENSE
The New Fight for American Liberty
By Ken Cuccinelli with Brian J. Gottstein
Crown Forum. 259 pp. $25
Steven Ginsberg is the national political editor at The Washington Post. He is from Virginia’s Eastern Shore and has covered politics in the state.