Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Kentuckian of the Year: Sen. Mitch McConnell

Here at the Heath Post we spend a lot of time on sports, but the biggest story in the Commonwealth this year turned on the fate of Kentucky's long-time Senior Senator.  Thirty years ago, Mitch McConnell seemingly came from nowhere to stun incumbent Walter "Dee" Huddleston and go to the Senate.  Over the decades, he had climbed the rankings of power rung by shaky rung until he had become the first Kentucky Senator since Alben Barkley to serve as party leader.  But McConnell was still only Minority Leader -- and his own seat was up for re-election in 2014.  He faced three huge challenges:

1.  Could he avoid the fate of other moderate Republicans and survive a Tea Party challenge in the GOP Primary?  Of course he could.  He rolled over Matt Bevin 60.2 percent to 35.4 percent.

2.  Could he survive a fiery and well-funded challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the General Election?  Absolutely.  He won by a much larger margin than the polls had anticipated -- 56.2 percent to 40.7 percent.

3.  Could he guide his fractious Republicans to a Senate Majority?  Yep.  The GOP ended up gaining nine seats -- more than most folks expected -- to build a 54-46 majority.

The running theme through all of this, of course -- as it has been throughout most of his career -- is that Sen. McConnell did better than expected.  When we say that, of course, we are referring to the expectations of pundits and commentators -- exactly the sort of people who tend to dislike Sen. McConnell the most.  It is a remarkable fact that Sen. McConnell's career -- one of the longest and most successful in the history of Kentucky politics -- has been marked by constant and furious opposition from the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Lexington Herald-Leader.  But Kentucky papers are not alone.  Sen. McConnell is regularly attacked by almost everyone in the mainstream press, as well as all commentators on the left, who see him as a symbol of GOP obstructionism, and who have never forgiven him for his remark that he wanted to make President Obama a one-term president.

Normally one would expect any high-ranking politician who is regularly vilified on the left to benefit from favorable coverage on the right.  But Sen. McConnell is also hated -- really and truly hated -- by many commentators on the right, who see his approach to government as nothing more than carrying water for the Washington Establishment, even when that Establishment is led by a Democrat like President Obama.  Here is a typical example of how many folks on the right view Sen. McConnell, and many others could be given.

Of course, it can't be true that the same man is both a vicious partisan who hates the Democrats and a spineless wimp who gives the Democrats everything they want.  Nor does it make sense that someone who is constantly thought be in political trouble goes from victory to victory.  Unfortunately, however, Sen. McConnell lives in a blind spot of the political commentariat.  He doesn't give dramatic speeches.  He doesn't announce his plans.  He doesn't paint pretty pictures about his ideal society.  He doesn't say much at all -- at least in public.  Instead, he spends his time in the trenches of American politics -- raising money, building coalitions, and keeping his fellow Republicans in line.  The result is that he has the reality of power without the trappings.  Pundits may tell themselves stories about how Ted Cruz, or Elizabeth Warren, or John McCain, or Bernie Sanders, are doing this or that big thing in the Senate.  But everything goes through Sen. McConnell's office, and for better or worse our government tends to reflect his priorities.  For at least the next two years, that will be even more true.

And what are those priorities?  Now that Sen. McConnell has reached the top of the tree -- after 30 years in the Senate, including eight as Minority Leader -- what will he do with the power he worked so hard to obtain?  We will have to wait to find out.  Most Kentuckians come from a tradition of outspoken, back-slapping politicians, who love nothing more than jawboning with their constituents over the issues of the day.  Sen. McConnell does not.  He is much more nimble and quick-witted than his opponents realize -- just look at the brilliant (and funny) attack ads he has always run -- but he will never do the sort of "vision thing" that so many commentators like.  We will have to judge him by his actions -- and I have no doubt that over the next two years, the Senate will follow his lead.  He will be the most powerful politician from Kentucky in over 60 years, and that is quite an accomplishment.  Therefore, we name him the 2014 Kentuckian of the Year.

Prior Kentuckians of the Year:

2010:  Rand Paul (Bowling Green)
2011:  John Calipari (Lexington)
2012:  Darius Miller (Maysville)
2013:  Jennifer Lawrence (Louisville)

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