The real issues in this Senate campaign? Speeches offer a clue

August 9, 2014

140806Clinton-TE0255Former President Bill Clinton appeared at a fundraising luncheon in Lexington on Aug. 6 for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Photos by Tom Eblen


I spent time in the past week listening to a lot of speeches by the two U.S. Senate candidates and their surrogates.

We don’t hear as many political speeches as we used to. Campaigns have mostly become a series of TV attack ads in which candidates trash their opponents and stretch the truth as much as they can in 30 seconds.

Political speeches are longer than attack ads, increasing the odds that a candidate might mention accomplishments or goals or reveal the values behind his or her campaign.

When Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, faced off Aug. 2 at the Fancy Farm Picnic, they mostly mocked each other and professed more love for the coal industry than for clean air, clean water and good health.

McConnell used the rest of his time to slam Gov. Steve Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway, the “liberal” media and President Barack Obama, perhaps the only politician with a lower approval rating in Kentucky than his own.

McConnell vowed to repeal Obama’s health-care law, which has provided insurance to tens of thousands of Kentuckians who didn’t have it. He also urged voters to re-elect him to lead Senate Republicans so the gridlock in Washington can continue.

What McConnell did not mention was any accomplishments during his three decades as Kentucky’s longest-serving senator. He also didn’t say what he would do to improve the lives of average Kentuckians.

At least Grimes used some of her time to talk about how she would try to grow a middle class that has been shrinking for three decades because of globalization and “trickle down” economic policies that favor the wealthy.

Grimes called for raising the minimum wage and legislating equitable pay for women, both of which McConnell opposes. She also voiced support for strengthening Social Security and Medicare, making college more affordable and protecting the right of workers to bargain collectively for better pay and benefits.

With polls showing the race essentially tied, Grimes brought in former President Bill Clinton to campaign for her Wednesday in Lexington and Hazard. Clinton carried Kentucky in both of his presidential elections, and his administrations presided over an era of balanced budgets, job growth, welfare reform and economic prosperity.

Clinton is a gifted speaker with a knack for putting things in perspective.

“Creating jobs and raising incomes and giving poor people a chance to work into the middle class, that is the issue,” Clinton told those who attended a Grimes fundraising luncheon in Lexington.

He endorsed Grimes’ call for raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in five years.

“We have not kept up with inflation,” Clinton said, adding that a reasonable increase in the minimum wage will create jobs, not kill them as Republicans always claim. “These people are going to spend that money; it’s going to circulate in their communities; all the local merchants are going to be better off; incomes will go up; more people will get hired; more people will get a pay raise.

“Creating more jobs and shared prosperity, as opposed to fewer jobs and more concentrated wealth with all the benefits going to people at the top, is the main issue people face in country after country and country,” he added. “We Americans have not done enough for broadly shared prosperity, because we have not done enough to create jobs.”

Clinton also discussed the political obstruction McConnell has led in Congress since Obama became president in 2009.

He contrasted McConnell to former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, a Democrat who while in Senate leadership worked well with colleagues and presidents of both parties, and to Beshear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, who together last year formed the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative to help diversify Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

“I’ve been everywhere, and I’m telling you: whenever people are working together, good things are happening,” Clinton said. “Whenever they spend all their time fighting, good things are not happening. The founders of this country gave us a system that requires us to treat people who disagree with us with respect and dignity and to make principled compromise so that something good can happen. Cooperation works, and constant conflict is a dead-bang loser.”

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You had to look hard for substance at Fancy Farm

August 2, 2009

FANCY FARM — The governor was vacationing in Florida. Members of Congress were working in Washington. The audience was smaller and less rowdy than usual. Even the traditionally oppressive heat stayed away from this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic.

With no statewide elections this year, the best reason to make the long drive to Graves County on Saturday was the barbecue, fresh vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the families of St. Jerome parish.

The focus of this year’s political speaking was the 2010 U.S. Senate race, which turned into a wide-open contest last week, when Republican incumbent Jim Bunning, 77, became the last person in Kentucky to realize it was time for him to retire.

Three Republicans and four Democrats who are seeking their parties’ nominations for the seat next May spoke to the crowd. I found them all disappointing. Click here to hear the speeches.

Democrat supporter Thomas Kirby of Clinton was among those at the 129th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

Democrat supporter Thomas Kirby of Clinton was among those at the 129th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

When they weren’t beating up on each other, the Democrats were blaming eight years of Republican government for the nation’s economic problems. The Republicans were stoking fear about what might happen as a result of Democrats’ efforts to solve those problems.

The sharpest words came from the two Democratic frontrunners, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway.

Mongiardo, a Hazard physician and coal industry advocate, tried to portray himself as the candidate of the common man. He attacked Conway, of Louisville, for his Duke University education and alleged “silver spoon” background.

Then Mongiardo tried to link Conway to President Barack Obama’s “cap-and-trade” legislation, which is designed to reduce pollution from burning coal. It was a stretch. Besides, Fancy Farm seemed like an odd place to argue, in essence, that concerns about man-made climate change are unfounded.

Western Kentucky’s trees remain bent and broken from last fall’s bizarre hurricane winds and last winter’s crippling ice storm. It’s usually about 100 degrees at the Fancy Farm Picnic. This year, temperatures never left the low 80s, while, across the country, usually balmy Seattle is gripped by a heat wave.

Conway, whose supporters held up signs that said “Mongiardo doesn’t know Jack,” took a few verbal swipes at the doctor and showed he knows how to cuss. The attorney general talked about how much he has worked on consumer-protection issues.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson’s speech was straight from the conservative playbook, complete with sneering references to Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed and House Speaker Nancy Pelonsi.

Grayson needed to play to the GOP’s conservative base. His main challenger is Bowling Green eye doctor Rand Paul, son of Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, the darling of libertarians.

Paul attacked Republicans and Democrats alike. He talked about balanced budgets and held up a thick stack of paper, saying senators shouldn’t vote on any bill they haven’t fully read. At one point, somebody in the GOP cheering section behind me yelled, “You’re boring!”

Three virtual unknowns cast themselves as alternatives to politics as usual: Democrats Darlene Fitzgerald Price, a former U.S. Customs agent from McCreary County, and Maurice Sweeney, a businessman from Jefferson County; and Republican Bill Johnson, a Todd County businessman.

The Fancy Farm crowd is always more interested in heckling than listening, so it’s hard to tell which candidates’ messages might resonate with average voters. For me, the most relevant words came from State Auditor Crit Luallen, once you filtered out her obligatory Democratic partisanship.

Crit Luallen

As citizens have seen jobs disappear, Luallen said, “they have watched banking scandals unfold, the meltdown on Wall Street, the disclosure of extravagant corporate perks and irresponsible spending of their tax dollars by public leaders. The American people have had it up to here. They’ve said enough is enough.”

What voters want is accountability, and she said it is not a partisan issue.

“These are times that demand leaders with integrity to restore trust, leaders with principles to act responsibly, leaders with the courage to take on powerful interests and leaders who will insure accountability for your hard-earned money,” she said.

“It’s time to honor the public’s demands for greater accountability. Every public leader is a guardian of the taxpayer’s trust. And we must all recommit ourselves to honor and hold sacred that trust.”

It was a good speech. But I couldn’t help but think Luallen should have delivered it facing the stage rather than the audience.