It used to be that being a businessman was a sterling credential on a political resume.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and Obama's allies, annihilated that axiom in 2012, morphing Republican challenger Mitt Romney into an outsourcing, job-killing, vulture capitalist who had something to hide by not releasing (more of) his tax returns.
That playbook is now in full effect again. But this time it’s being employed by a Republican, Ken Cuccinelli, against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, best known as a prolific Democratic fundraiser and Clinton ally.
“If you have nothing to hide… then release the documents,” a Cuccinelli video says, excerpting McAuliffe himself, urging the Democrat to release his tax returns. On Thursday, Cuccinelli released eight years of tax returns.
The video is full of quotes from President Obama and former Obama adviser David Axelrod to Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- all from when they were calling on Romney to release his for the sake of “transparency.”
It’s just the latest page in the Cuccinelli playbook against McAuliffe. Earlier this month, the campaign released a blistering video, slamming McAuliffe for his involvement in Greentech Automotive. It blasts him for not creating the jobs he said it would and noting that the car plant was essentially outsourced to Mississippi – instead of creating jobs in Virginia.
It even uses this quote from ex-president Bill Clinton, under whom McAuliffe was DNC chair: “I would buy a new car from Terry. But a used car? I am not so sure about a used car.” (Beth Reinhard at National Journal has previously written about how Republicans are using the Romney playbook against McAuliffe.)
“Terry McAuliffe is running on a perceived business acumen, and that is his credential to talk about jobs and the economy, which is the core of his candidacy,” an operative close to the Cuccinelli campaign said. “That is quickly being taken away from him and discredited, and that will leave him rudderless.”
As for the comparison to the anti-Romney strategy, principally used by Super PAC Priorities USA, which ran brutal ads in Virginia, the operative did not shy away from it.
“It’s not that the Democrats and Terry made these arguments,” the operative said. “It’s that they made these arguments a few months ago, which puts them in a very tough position to defend a candidate, who directly opposes a position they took a few months ago. … To the degree that draws attention to Terry and the position that puts him in, all the better.”
Democrats see it as nothing more than a way to grab attention and change the subject. Cuccinelli -- whose conservative views on everything from gay marriage and abortion to investigating climate scientists at the University of Virginia have called into question whether he is in step with this state Obama won twice -- has also been under the microscope for his investments in a company called Star Scientific. Cuccinelli's office was representing Virginia in a tax lawsuit Star Scientific filed.
"It's been a month of editorials and front-page stories highlighting Ken Cuccinelli's ethics problems and lack of transparency, so it's no surprise that he's trying to change the subject with misleading attacks,” said Josh Schwerin, press secretary for McAuliffe. “Even the most conservative editorial board in Virginia is calling Ken Cuccinelli's attacks an attempt to distract from his ongoing conflict of interest scandal. Ken Cuccinelli has zero credibility when he is refusing to answer questions about why he failed to disclose that he bought stock in a company while he was supposed to be pursuing them for unpaid taxes."
Noticing the Romney strategy, the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote, “The move serves two purposes: It deflects attention from the Star Scientific flap, and it flips the traditional partisan script.”
There’s also a question as to whether employing the Romney strategy will work against McAuliffe, because there were two steps to the strategy behind the Priorities USA ads. It wasn’t just that Romney was a rich guy, there was also a policy pivot to his support of tax cuts that benefited the wealthiest.
It’s a point that even Republican pollster David Winston made to the Washington Post. “It’s how you translate it [into] what McAuliffe would do if he were elected,” he said. “Here are these interesting points. Now why does this matter in terms of policies?”
As the Times-Dispatch concluded: “This is all mildly entertaining, though it has about as much relevance to issues such as education and transportation as the size of a candidate’s hat. No matter. Last week Republicans tried to make political hay out of McAuliffe’s decision to skip the Shad Planking, an event about which few voters know and even fewer care. It is going to be that kind of campaign.”