Bevin and Trump are finding that war of words is easier than governing

Published 5:59 pm Friday, September 8, 2017


Guest columnist

Having gained full control of Frankfort and near-full control of Washington in the last two years, Republicans have found that governing is much harder than throwing rhetorical bombs — especially when their own chief executives keep tossing such explosives.

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Gov. Matt Bevin revived his occasional impression of President Donald Trump, railing against teachers who would summarily retire because of big changes he wants to make to the state’s pension systems.

Perhaps Bevin didn’t realize that House Speaker Jeff Hoover’s wife is a teacher. The speaker promptly brought the governor up to speed.

“I was disappointed in what the governor said about those that would consider” retirement, Hoover said, and “disappointed in the governor’s remarks with regard to sick days,” which can be accumulated for retirement credit.

“He’ll have to answer for that,” Hoover said of Bevin. “We all need to turn down the rhetoric and recognize we’ve got a serious problem and we need to come together as Kentuckians and try to solve this problem.”

Hoover said his wife Karin doesn’t know how many sick days she has accumulated and works when she is under the weather — not to bank sick days for retirement, but because for many of her first-grade students, “It’s the only time they get a hug during the day.”

This wasn’t the first public scratchiness between the veteran legislator and the businessman-turned-politician about the content of the special legislative session Bevin plans to call on pensions.

In early August, replying to legislators’ request that Bevin make the case to have a session on both pension reform and tax reform to fund it, the governor told WHAS Radio host Leland Conway, “These things alone a small child could figure out. I need to explain that to a legislator? Cause them to think there’s a need for action? Then they shouldn’t be representing anybody in Frankfort.”

That prompted what Hoover called a “frank and candid” talk with Bevin, Ronnie Ellis of CNHI News reported. Bevin had already abandoned his long-held idea of a special session on pensions and taxes to fund them.

The governor’s idea was a good one, because the pensions are in crisis and the state needs tax reform to modernize and strengthen its revenue base, after 27 years of little change in the tax code and 10 years of budget cuts that have left state agencies struggling to meet their public service responsibilities.

But you can add Bevin’s proposal to the long list of good ideas that didn’t fly politically.

He was ineffective at selling it, and an especially strong sales pitch was needed, because there is little sentiment for raising any taxes among Republican legislators — many of whom bash taxes as an article of political faith and are first-termers facing a re-election campaign next year or both.

Some of those freshmen rolled into office on the Kentucky landslide for Trump, making them all the more nervous about their political future, at least until after the Jan. 30 filing deadline for legislative seats. Once the “Trump babies” and others can gauge their electoral prospects, they might be more willing to consider tax reform. But it will take a lot more leadership and guts than we’ve seen so far.

In Washington, the cover has likewise been taken off previously private tensions between a Republican chief executive and the party’s most pivotal legislative leader.

Shortly after my last column on Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the New York Times reported that the two hadn’t spoken since an Aug. 9 phone call “devolved into a profane shouting match.” That seemed uncharacteristic for McConnell, who usually takes things in stride, but when pressed, I’ve seen him return fire for maximum impact. And in this case, people close to him seemed to be the story’s main sources.

The story said it was based on “more than a dozen people briefed on [the] imperiled partnership” of the leaders. Its first paragraph said “Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises.” That is an extraordinary thing for a majority leader of a president’s party to circulate.

McConnell had been more circumspect about Trump than House Speaker Paul Ryan, but his patience had worn thin even before Trump’s equation of neo-Nazis and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Two days before their phone call, McConnell had blamed Trump’s “excessive expectations” for Republicans’ failure to pass a health-insurance bill. That prompted a flurry of tweets from Trump, criticizing McConnell on the issue and other points, but making no mention of “the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election,” about which Trump was “even more animated” during the call, the Times reported.

McConnell’s main biographer, Louisville lawyer John David Dyche, read the story and tweeted, “Not so private now, is it? Battle joined, disengagement will be difficult. Combatants are sure to sustain political casualties.”

A writer of the story, Jonathan Martin, told Vanity Fair, “You couldn’t find two people who are temperamentally more different in American politics than Mitch McConnell and President Trump. … McConnell is an institutionalist, he’s a man of the Senate, a fierce partisan who for the life of him does not understand why this president can’t get the fact that they have a shared faith.”

But do they, really? Trump’s attacks on McConnell and other Republican senators undermine the party’s prospects in 2018, when voters could elect a Democratic House primed to impeach Trump. That makes passage of a tax-reform bill all the more important to the GOP. But there are signs that the plan may devolve into a simple tax cut, exploding the deficit and debt, because Trump and Republicans are short on time and so desperate for a major legislative success. Bad politics creates bad policy.

Looking ahead to 2020, when Trump and McConnell are up for re-election, Trump is doing much better in Kentucky; an Aug. 15-16 poll gave him 60 percent job approval to McConnell’s 18 percent. But as the title of McConnell’s autobiography says, he plays “The Long Game.” Trump may be a short-termer. And that might suit McConnell just fine.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal.