Derby visitors, welcome!
Each year this space takes the opportunity to give you glimpses of Kentucky’s political landscape, and each year we realize some of you put as much value on our offering as on one of yesterday’s losing tickets. But know this: You’re in a state that is playing a larger national role than at any time in recent memory, mainly because we have quite a pair of U.S. senators.
They’re both Republicans, reflecting our state’s 30-year trend, and you’ve probably heard of them both, for different reasons.
One is known for his power, the other for his philosophy. And they’ve been doing quite a political dance for more than a year.
Mitch McConnell is the leader of Republicans in the Senate. He’s an establishment kind of guy who treats politics as a business.
Rand Paul is a leader of the tea party, and in many ways less a Republican than a libertarian, like his father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He treats politics as cause — attacking the national debt — and is not McConnell’s kind of guy, or certainly wasn’t a year or more ago.
Paul used his father’s presidential- campaign network, the tea party movement and Fox News appearances to make himself a credible challenger to McConnell’s chosen candidate to succeed Jim Bunning, whom McConnell had forced into retirement for fear that Bunning would lose to a Democrat. That would have been a damaging embarrassment for McConnell, who did suffer the spectacle of Paul beating his candidate, Trey Grayson, in last May’s primary by 23.3 percentage points.
(Grayson, then secretary of state, got a nice consolation prize; he runs the Institute of Politics at Harvard.)
McConnell and Paul quickly got into harness to make sure Bunning’s seat remained in Republican hands, though Paul played word games when asked if he would vote to re-elect McConnell as Senate GOP leader.
Riding the national anti-Democratic wave in a state that dislikes President Barack Obama, and getting a final boost from the unwise television strategy of Attorney General Jack Conway, Paul won the general election by 11.5 points.
While Paul was writing a triumphal book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington,” McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden negotiated a deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. As Paul and other tea party types pressed for a current-year budget that cut spending, the Republican establishment moved their way, and Democrats had to follow.
Ignoring custom for new senators, Paul is loud, proud and self-aggrandizing, to the point of suggesting that he will probably run for president next year if his father doesn’t (which now seems likelier). He obviously views himself as a provocateur, and as the vanguard of a movement to drastically scale back the federal government. Representing his state, which is relatively poor and benefits from federal largesse, seems secondary.
When Kentucky Educational Television host Bill Goodman asked Paul recently what his biggest surprise had been, he replied, “That one person, if they’re loud and unafraid and will say what’s wrong, you can get some attention and you can draw the debate to where you want it to be. I don’t think you have to wait 20 or 30 years.
Some people think, ‘Sit on the back bench, develop seniority.’ There was a time when that happened, but I think now the problem of the debt is at the forefront of everybody’s thought and that’s what got me involved and got me running. So I think it is surprising that one person can speak out and that the world will listen.”
At the state Republican dinner four weeks ago, Paul questioned whether the McConnell-endorsed budget deal between Obama and House Republicans to avoid a government shutdown had really accomplished anything — and said it may have been a Pyrrhic victory.
McConnell, speaking next, first complimented Paul for pressing for spending cuts. But later he said that Republicans could claim a pretty good day’s work on the budget deal because they control only one-third of the government.
That was a typical McConnell sound bite: logically simple and easy to remember, but not fully accurate. McConnell and his caucus are a great blocking power in the Senate because Democrats don’t have 60 votes, and it could be argued that if any party prevails at the Supreme Court, it is the GOP.
Our senior senator is not a compelling public speaker, but in a world where spin, messaging and prior belief increasingly trump the facts, McConnell’s message machine can make a difference. At the dinner, he referred to “the stimulus that didn’t stimulate,” a plainly false assertion, but one that most Americans seem to believe because they don’t understand that facet of economics. The stimulus was inefficient, as much government spending is, but it certainly stimulated the economy.
McConnell’s line may seem like yesterday’s news, but is rhetorical underpinning on which he and the rest of the GOP establishment can find common ground with Paul and the tea party: making people forget we incurred record deficits to head off a depression, and that most of the record national debt was amassed because Republicans cut taxes while fighting wars.
Kentuckians will hear much anti-Obama rhetoric this fall, because the president’s unpopularity gives Republicans their main chance to deny Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear a second term. You may have seen likely GOP nominee David Williams saying in a TV ad, “I’ll stand up to the federal government to support Kentucky coal and fight Obamacare.”
Those issues will also play in the race for attorney general, where Conway seeks re-election against Hopkins County Attorney Todd P’Pool — whose campaign is being run by McConnell’s former field director, Larry Cox. Williams’ point main is former Karl Rove assistant Scott Jennings.
The last time a Kentucky governor’s race was federalized, in 1995, Democrats successfully demonized congressional Republicans. This time, Republicans are doing that with Obama. The race is likely to be the most competitive of four races for governor this year, drawing attention and money from all over the nation. Come back for our fall racing, both human and equine!
Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His e-mail address is email@example.com. His views are his own, not those of UK.