The impression the media gives of Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is something of an obstinate hacksaw one shade shy of anarchist, a powder keg whom Republicans watch just waiting for an Akin/Mourdock moment.
Cuccinelli is the state’s presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee whose quest to succeed the state’s current Republican governor Bob McDonnell (who is limited to one term) has drawn criticism from both sides. Democrats, led by challenger Terry McAuliffe, are painting him as a ruthless radical intent on destroying government programs which promote the common good. McDonnell’s Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling and those who share in his thinking that the Republican Party needs to moderate its tone to broaden its appeal, have condemned Cuccinelli and the so-called extremist views of his new book, The Last Line of Defense.
I spoke to Cuccinelli about his campaign strategy, the future of the GOP, and his war on big government, as well as the contents of his book and the perception his words generate.
In a state that has gone twice for Obama and elected Democratic senators the past three times, Cuccinelli said his reliability accounts for much of his popularity. “People have come to understand in Virginia that what you see is what you get,” he said, “and I think that accounts for the support I get from some people who don’t necessarily agree with me on a lot of issues. They really appreciate knowing where I stand.”
Cuccinelli has been described as “uncompromising" and “undaunted.” He's stood for unapologetic conservatism during his eight years as a state senator and three years as attorney general, and hasn’t lost an election yet. Early polling in the gubernatorial race shows him tied with McAuliffe.
Pointing to the anti-Paul Ryan “Medi-scare” ads of the 2012 presidential election, Cuccinelli defended himself and the way the other side has portrayed his stance on entitlement programs. “Of course those programs have perfectly good goals,” he said, “but…our government has crowded out all alternatives to Medicare, and so when somebody like Paul Ryan actually has the temerity to try to suggest how we can make it sustainable, to put an actual plan on the table, the other side simply attacks. ‘He’ll take away your government program, and that’s all there is!’ According to [big government folks], you can’t touch any part of government, unless you want to grow it.”
“One of [politicians’] 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),” Cuccinelli writes in The Last Line of Defense. “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.”
He continues, “Once they’re elected, they decide that eliminating that government program or that regulation is a little too risky, because there’s some group of voters (who probably won’t vote for them anyway) who’ll be angry and vocal about it if they do.”
Opponents on the left are calling these remarks “echoes of Mitt Romney’s infamous remarks about 47 percent of Americans [who are] dependent on government.” But Cuccinelli doesn’t seem concerned that his words will have the same damning effect. “I think what Mitt Romney said was that there’s so much of this dependence that 47 percent of the Americans will never vote for him,” he said. “Well, my number is zero percent. There is no vote in Virginia that I don’t have a shot at. I literally haven’t found a human being yet that I don’t agree with on something. Don’t put me in that category. I haven’t written anybody off. I think that Governor Romney’s statement left him as perceived that he had in fact written some people off. Well, I haven’t written anybody off, and I don’t intend to.”
Cuccinelli made it clear that his goal is not adamant dissolution of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and “outright welfare” programs, but rather to reverse the federal government’s “extraordinary overreach in the regulatory arena.” “Let’s face it,” he said, “bad policy or good policy is the subject of elections. We don’t sue the federal government because we don’t like what they’re doing. For that we vote. We only sue them when they’re breaking the law, or violating the Constitution. That’s what lawsuits are for.”
Cuccinelli’s book chronicles his challenges to Obamacare, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Communications Commission. “It isn’t just what’s good policy and what’s not,” he explained. “We’re dealing with something much more fundamental, and that is the fact that the federal government isn’t obeying the law and is trampling the Constitution. The states have stepped up and played a role that the Founders expected states to play, and that is to put a check on the federal government’s overzealous abuse of power.”
Cuccinelli’s arguments are based on a sound understanding of the Constitution and America’s founding documents. Despite repeated calls from liberals to do away with the Constitution and “all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions,” Cuccinelli is determined and optimistic: "We beat the EPA. That makes me optimistic. The NLRB ruling was a big deal. When a state like Michigan becomes a right-to-work state, that gives me a great deal of optimism."
And he's sanguine about continuing his success in the governor's mansion: "I intend, if I can win this governor’s race, to continue that innovative, aggressive push to make our economy here in Virginia more pro-growth, more encouraging to innovation and risk-taking, and when people finally throw in the towel on this bigger government approach of federal government, there’ll be examples all over America in states that have undertaken these sorts of free-market, pro-growth, and pro-liberty policies, and we intend to be one of those here in Virginia.
Cuccinelli referenced a recent Pew research survey which finds that a majority of Americans believe the federal government threatens their personal rights. “American people are getting sensitized to the fact that they’re losing their freedoms slowly but surely to the illegal activities of a lot of these regulatory agencies,” he said.
Speaking about the division which emerged in the GOP following Romney’s loss in the fall and whether it could lead to the rise of a third party, Cuccinelli, a Tea Party hero, said: "I think the way we got President Obama as president in 2008 is that Republicans in years running up to it had abandoned their principles when they actually had the ability to govern, and were in a position to do so. He didn’t win so much as we lost in 2008. We’ve got to step it up to do better in that area at one-on-one campaigning. We’ve got to have our people able to explain why the course we want to be on is better."
So far, Ken Cucinelli's race is certainly one to watch. As a champion of small government in the only high-profile race this off-year, his campaign will be followed with intense interest across the political spectrum. Even Slate can’t find much bad to say about him, other than that he is “ultraconservative.”
Those conservative values will be on trial in Virginia this November. And the whole country will be watching.