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Run Bill run
SoVaNow.com / February 06, 2013On the heels of one presidential election, political junkies already are yakking about the 2016 campaign. Just make it stop, you might say to yourself. And you’d be right: not only is the speculation silly and annoying, it also glosses over the big political story happening in the here and now: the civil war that is welling up from within the Republican Party.
Some of us — a little avariciously — have been waiting for this: the moment when someone in the ranks has the guts to tell the GOP to knock it off, dial it back, come down to earth and contribute something to the debate that isn’t based on cynical calculation or distortions or, worse, talk-radio lies. There are plenty of Republicans who aspire to set their party on such a course. But in the face of the mania that reigned during Obama’s first term, they’ve been laying low.
It’s time for Republican moderates to show their true colors. And who knows, a Virginia officeholder who few have bothered to pay much attention to over the past four years could be a leader in bringing the Grand Old Party out of the deep dark wilderness. His name is Bill Bolling, and if he hasn’t yet decided to run for governor this year, he should.
You’ve probably heard of Bolling — he is the state’s lieutenant governor, after all. A conventional conservative, Bolling has positioned himself over the past four years as Bob McDonnell’s heir apparent, earning the governor’s support for a run at the top job after playing the dutiful no. 2. Unfortunately for Bolling, no one told Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s in-your-face attorney general, about the arrangement. Cuccinelli also decided to go for the Republican nomination and won it more or less without a firing a shot because he excites the party’s base, which milquetoast types like Bolling do not. (His conquest also involved a switch from a primary to a convention, a move engineered by the pro-Cuccinelli state committee).
Cuccinelli is a political disaster waiting to happen — a man who will make Virginia the next lightning rod for the hyper-partisan storm that has swept the country. Whereas most politicians deep down yearn to be everyone’s pal, Cuccinelli is an unabashed culture warrior who makes the current batch of ideologues and doofs in charge of the General Assembly look like Mr. Rogers by comparison. It’s tempting to think he won the attorney general’s race four years ago simply because no one was paying attention downticket as McDonnell rolled to a 17-point victory, but this ignores Cuccinelli’s consistent, and to this observer quite inexplicable, record of electoral success. He could well become Virginia’s next chief executive, especially with Democrats fielding a candidate of their own, Terry McAuliffe, with major weaknesses. If Cuccinelli wins, watch out.
Bolling would have been a far better pick for Republicans, both for the party’s future prospects and for Virginia as a whole. (Put me down as believing Ken Cuccinelli cannot win the general election, although with McAuliffe also on the ballot the usual political calculations could give way to an unprecedented amount of nose-holding). Bolling also seems to believe he’d be the superior November candidate, as evidenced by his refusal to endorse Cuccinelli on the grounds that he is too extreme. Since being denied the Republican nomination, Bolling has been talking about running as an independent. But will he follow through?
Third party and independent candidacies almost never pan out, but Bolling wouldn’t have to win in 2013 to exert a profound influence on Republican Party politics in Virginia and beyond. In the wake of their drubbing in the presidential election — a race many right-wingers never imagined they could lose — Republicans are due for a reckoning, even a cleansing, that will only happen if the party’s rational elements are willing to stand up to the crazy train. Bolling vs. Cucinelli in 2013 was supposed to provide a sense of which end of the Republican coalition would be ascendant in coming years. We now know the answer, and it ain’t pretty, but it is heartening to think the moderate wing of the GOP might have some fight left in it yet.
At its core, a serious run by Bolling would be about much more than personal ambition or political jockeying, which anyone can be forgiven for not caring one whit about. Rather, his candidacy would signal nothing less than a return to reason for the Republican Party, an outcome that even partisan Democrats should welcome. A pleasant surprise over the past few weeks has been Bolling’s evolution from standard-issue conservative politician to a more heterodox figure. All of Southside Virginia owes him a thank-you note for his stance against uranium mining, but Bolling has taken several other positions that break with rigid conservatism. None is more significant than his support for expanding Medicaid, which puts Bolling at odds with the majority of his party and especially Cuccinelli, who wasted untold taxpayer dollars fighting Obamacare in court.
The Medicaid expansion is a big deal — if Republicans at the Capital, including Gov. McDonnell, allow it to happen. The Affordable Care Act, neé Obamacare, calls for extending Medicaid benefits to families earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, although the program expansion must be approved on a state-by-state basis. Southside Virginia, with thousands of families in line to qualify for Medicaid, would be a huge winner. (So would our two area hospitals — CMH and Halifax Regional — which now are forced to write off millions of dollars in unpaid health care each year). From an economic and fiscal standpoint, taking the Medicaid deal is a no-brainer — the federal government pays the full cost of additional beneficiaries for the first three years, and 90 percent after that. Credible economic analyses show that Virginia would come out ahead financially after factoring in the estimated 30,000 new jobs that would be created in the health care sector. The sole reason for opposing the law is ideology — Republicans didn’t like Obamacare when it passed, and now they’re trying to drag it down despite the manifest good it would do for people at the low rungs of the wage ladder. The GOP has been beaten at every turn on health care reform, but it’s a rare Republican who will tell the bitter-enders to knock it off.
Bolling distinguished himself this month as just such a person. He’s also weighed in against an eliminationist state Senate redistricting plan that party members enacted by a 20-19 vote while a black Democratic senator was out of town in Washington to attend the presidential inauguration. On Monday, Bolling helped to strip out noxious provisions of the latest Republican-sponsored voter ID law to make it to the Senate floor. (Such laws allegedly represent a response to voter fraud, a ginned-up problem that no one has ever shown to be serious, in marked contrast to right-wing legislation aimed at disenfranchising left-leaning constituencies). Virginia’s lieutenant governor suddenly has become the champion of the sensible center, a position made possible only by breaking with the radical right.
Of course, a three-way campaign — featuring McAuliffe in center-left, Bowling in center-right, and Cuccinelli so far out in right field that he might as well as take up a stool at Murphy’s Bar & Grill across the street from Wrigley Field — will likely produce a Democratic victory in the fall. Such an outcome is not assured, however, depending on what kind of candidate McAuliffe proves to be. One can easily envision Bolling surprising on the upside in November.
Even if he doesn’t, and McAuliffe wins as a result of Cuccinelli and Bolling splitting the GOP base, no right-leaning voter should rue a decision by Bolling to jump into the race. After all, he wouldn’t be the first insurgent Republican candidate to hand victory over to the Democrats. Tea Party favorites — represented by the likes of U.S. Senate candidates Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Christine O’Donnell — have been doing a great job losing their races and making sure that Republicans fall short in their perpetual quest for power in Washington. If Bolling does wind up playing the spoiler against Cuccinelli, think of it as balancing out the score.
Either way, Virginia Republicans — and other besides — have a lot to gain out of the deal.