McConnell scores political points as Bevin loses them

Published 8:48 am Thursday, December 14, 2017


Guest columnist

In the space of a few hours last weekend, one of Kentucky’s top two political leaders scored a big victory he badly needed, and the other suffered an embarrassing and perhaps damaging defeat he didn’t need to risk.

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In Washington, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was in the driver’s seat as the Senate passed a tax bill that is all but sure to be Republicans’ major legislative accomplishment under President Trump. It remains to be seen how much it will accomplish for the country, but even if the long-term economics don’t work, the short-term politics probably will.

In Frankfort, the state Republican Party took Gov. Matt Bevin out of its driver’s seat. On a 48-38 vote, the central committee refused to join his demand for resignation of four state House members who settled an employee’s sexual-harassment claim. That deepened Bevin’s split with House Republicans, who then asked him not to call a special session on pensions, which he has long vowed to do.

As the drama grew in Frankfort, McConnell basked in the victory that he scored in the wee hours of Saturday morning, four months after he had failed to deliver on Republicans’ seven-year promise to “repeal Obamacare.” The 51-49 vote for the complicated tax bill restored his reputation in Washington as “the modern-day political alchemist — making the chaos into policy gold,” as a source told Mike Allen of Axios.

It may not be gold, and it’s less about policy than politics. Nonpartisan estimators reckon the bill would add somewhere between $500 billion and $1.4 trillion to the national debt.

McConnell claimed it would actually raise revenue, but offered no evidence beyond “a whole lot of economists who think that it will pay for itself.” That’s a minority view, and the economists cited by his office talk mainly about how the bill would spark much greater economic growth; they didn’t categorically say it would pay for itself. Their main point seemed to be that without the bill, “the United States risks continued economic underperformance.”

Such economists point to the slow growth after the Great Recession in the Obama presidency. They discount recent growth, but even McConnell acknowledged it: “It is noteworthy that we’ve had two straight quarters of 3 percent growth.” Job growth is strong and unemployment is the lowest in 17 years. Many other economists warned against the bill. Why does the country need such a big tax cut?

It doesn’t. But Republicans do — in order to placate big contributors who are unhappy with the shortage of policy action since the party took control of the White House and both houses of Congress. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign committee, told his colleagues that the failure to repeal Obamacare had made contributors “furious,” and on taxes, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., said last month, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’”

Republicans also needed something to run on in next year’s elections, and a tax cut that will make paychecks larger could go a long way toward making them think less about the outrages of President Trump when they vote. To most voters, paychecks are more important than the deficit and debt. And if the bill doesn’t pay off, that gives Republicans more excuses to cut social programs. It’s a win-win, politically. But perhaps a loss for the country.

In Frankfort, Bevin’s attack again focused attention on ex-House Speaker Jeff Hoover, who resigned that post shortly after the Courier-Journal reported the settlement with the former employee.

At the time, Hoover said he and the staffer “engaged in inappropriate text messages” but never in “unwelcome or unwanted conduct” or “any sexual relations of any kind.” Bevin has equated the settlement with admissions of sexual misconduct, but the settlement language is secret. He speaks too soon, and Hoover’s colleagues agree; they have left the speaker’s post vacant as he remains in the House.

Much like McConnell said, “I believe the women” who accused Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, I believe Hoover. I’m biased; his sister is married to my brother, who worked in Hoover’s office during the legislative session. But I have known Jeff most of his life, and he’s a truth-teller. Perhaps he has told too many uncomfortable truths to Bevin, who now seems bent on his political destruction. The governor says he is acting out of moral principle, and I believe that, too. But let’s remember two other principles: Hate the sin, not the sinner, and believe in redemption.

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 the Courier-Journal.