Sabato on Virginia Politics
By Jeff Maisey
On March 13, University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato will speak at the Sandler Center, as part of the Virginia Beach Forum lecture series, on a range of issues facing the state as the 2013 gubernatorial loom just eight months out. Sabato’s Crystal Ball is run by UVA’s Center for Politics and with exceptional accuracy predicts the outcomes of elections nationwide. He is one of the most quoted politicos in national media.
In advance of Professor Sabato’s appearance I had an opportunity to pose a few questions.
How would you grade Bob McDonnell’s performance as governor and where would you rank him among Virginia’s governors of the past 50 years?
I’ve learned never to grade a governor’s performance before his term is finished. It’s a powerful office and even in the waning days of a term, the chief executive can do and say things that change perceptions. Let’s also remember that historical perspective comes only with the passage of years or decades. Instant analysis is an addictive staple of contemporary politics, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but it distorts reality.
What most impressed you about McDonnell’s performance?
Very tentatively, I’d say that Gov. McDonnell has done a good job in projecting a positive, upbeat image; citizens like to see someone who enjoys the office and approaches it constructively. To the extent that a governor has any real impact on the economy–it is national and international in scope–the governor has kept jobs and economic security at the forefront of his agenda. And whether you agree with the specifics or not, Gov. McDonnell often has proposed creative ideas to improve policy in transportation, education, and a wide range of other fields.
What have been his greatest weaknesses?
On the critical side, I’d suggest that the governor has not dealt with the big picture needs in transportation and other areas as much as he might have, even given the limitations of a so-so economy. Tinkering doesn’t create much of a legacy. Moreover, he’s been seen as head of a political party as often as head of government or chief of state. This is a criticism I extend to almost all of our modern governors. The one-term gubernatorial limit should offer an antidote to too much partisanship–but it doesn’t, because Virginia governors tend to be very ambitious people. I wish more of our modern governors saw this office the way it was once viewed, as “no higher honor”, so that they’d focus on their four short years at the top and stop running for other positions. That’s scheduled for the 12th of Never, of course.
What should Virginians expect if Ken Cuccinelli is elected as our next governor?
Ken was my student many years ago at the University of Virginia. He’s always been highly intelligent and well prepared–not someone you argue with if you haven’t thought out your position carefully. He’s not as single-minded as he is often presented. His term as attorney general has shown that he can be consumer-oriented, attentive to the needs of the powerless and those who have been wrongly convicted, and dogged in defending individual rights. At the same time, Ken is way over on the right side of the debates about abortion, gay rights, immigration, and climate change, and he’s not especially open to other points of view. Maybe that is in the nature of those issues.
Where is he most vulnerable in the coming debates and campaign agenda?
Ken’s greatest virtue is also his greatest weakness. He’s highly principled, and will stick to those principles come hell or high water. A fear that I’ve heard expressed everywhere is that, if elected, Ken will be uncompromising and unyielding, and we’ll have a divisive controversy every day about something. Virginia is now a moderate, highly diverse state of over 8 million people. Citizens don’t want to endure endless ideological battles that would exhaust everyone, and quite possibly embarrass them in national forums.
Which potential candidate from the Democratic side has the best chance of defeating Cuccinelli?
The Democratic nominee will be Terry McAuliffe. I’m aware of no other candidate. It’s possible that Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) will run as an Independent, and he’ll let us know in March. His entry would have an unpredictable effect on the contest. Some are too quick to say Bolling will hurt X at the expense of Y. Bolling could take a substantial number of votes from both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. Bolling’s problem would be money; he’d need many millions to be competitive.
Has Terry McAuliffe improved his likability among Virginian voters since his failed 2009 run in the Democratic primary?
Like Cuccinelli, McAuliffe is both bright and well versed in politics. He didn’t go over four years ago, and he lost by a landslide in a Democratic primary for governor he had been expected to win. Partly, that’s because he was viewed as a national, not a state, figure. He’s never held office in Virginia. Of course, Mark Warner had not held office before being elected governor. McAuliffe’s main advantage is being the Democratic nominee on the ballot opposite Ken Cuccinelli. Terry will get many thousands of votes just for being the alternative. Terry also will raise buckets of money from his national contacts, having served as Democratic National Committee chairman and Bill Clinton’s fundraiser for years. This time around, McAuliffe needs to show that he’s a Virginian first, that he knows enough about Virginia government to serve effectively as governor, and that he’s learned vital lessons from his 2009 defeat. Many just plain didn’t like him four years ago–and this sentiment was in his own Democratic party.
In Washington, do you expect to see any major legislation passed in the next two to three years concerning climate change?
There is no chance for comprehensive climate change legislation. The parties are too far apart and don’t even agree on the basics. Divided government–Republicans in charge of the House, Democrats in control of the Senate and White House–insures inaction.
Even with gridlock and major frustration with Washington, still no third party has emerged with a national candidate. Why?
Well over 90% of the American people identify with one of the two major parties. This includes lots of people who call themselves Independent. How people vote is far more important than what they call themselves. So there’s only a small base (5-7% or so) for a possible third party–especially once you subtract out those who are Libertarians and adherents of already established third parties. I never rule out the chance that some year, an already established national figure will decide to bolt his or her party and form a third one (think Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 or Ross Perot in 1992). Temporarily, this party could receive 20-25% of the vote. The problem becomes in getting it into the mid-30s or 40%–where it would have to be to win.
Looking ahead, would Hillary Clinton likely defeat Joe Biden in a Democratic primary? How would either of these stack up against New Jersey Governor Christie in a presidential race?
If the election were held today, Clinton would defeat Biden handily. But the election is in early 2016, not today. We don’t even know if Clinton, who’d be 69 by the inauguration, or Biden, who’d be 74, will run in the end. Our Crystal Ball at the UVA Center for Politics (www.centerforpolitics.org/cystalball) has achieved a strong record of accuracy in predicting elections, but only a fool would try to predict this far out. If you’re not careful, he who lives by the crystal ball will end up eating ground glass.