Paul uses the vinegar bottle. Can a Dem (like Booker) beat him with honey?

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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I’ve yet to meet a Kentucky Democrat who won’t admit privately that Gov. Matt Bevin mostly beat himself going on two Novembers ago.

Okay, I haven’t asked Gov. Andy Beshear. He probably has a different take on how Bevin ended up a one-term governor.

“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” President Abraham Lincoln famously admonished. The Republican Bevin almost always opted for vinegar. The Democrat Beshear, more of a honey fan, caught the most votes on Nov. 5, 2019. 

Rand Paul, Kentucky’s junior senator, will face the voters a year from this November. He’s a vinegar guy, too. That’s one reason why Democrats think they’ve at least got a shot, if a long one, at unseating him.   

Meanwhile, Bevin’s biliousness cost him a slew of votes. Even some Republican  bigwigs endorsed Beshear. 

Paul seems to revel in mockery and petulance. He regularly scolds reporters who dare ask him tough questions.

He has publicly berated and belittled Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts on COVID-19 for urging masking and other lifesaving precautions against the deadliest pandemic in a century. (Even after Paul caught the virus.)

Doubtless, Paul figures that lambasting the “lamestream media” endears him to Trump TV fans, and that slamming scientists earns him points with his fellow Covidiots. Both groups make a near-perfect-circle Venn Diagram and represent a big chunk of the Donald Trump-GOP base.

Paul inhabits the farthest right-wing shores of Republican paranoiac politics. He despises unions. He thinks the government’s main job is enriching the already rich, and that only rich white lives matter.

Paul, like his atheist hero Ayn Rand, believes that selfishness is a virtue.

Like Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, Paul is the antithesis of a traditional winning Kentucky politician. Both are as personable as a snapping turtle and as cuddly as a tangle of saw briars. Both are rank demagogues who demonize the other party and equate compromise with surrender.  

Even so, McConnell cruised again last November, winning all but Jefferson (Louisville), Fayette (Lexington) and Franklin (Frankfort) counties. (At the same time, Trump, the Yankee George Wallace, romped in the more than 87-percent white, largely rural, Bible Belt Bluegrass State, carrying every county save urban Jefferson and Fayette.)

Republicans scoff that the Dems are whistling past the graveyard if they think most Kentucky voters will turn on Paul over his Bevinesque peevishness and his loopy libertarianism.

Yet if the economy keeps on rebounding from COVID-19 and the pandemic continues to ebb, Democrats should be in good shape nationwide, though maybe less so in Kentucky, which is still deep Trumpistan. Besides, Paul is “right” on guns and abortion, issues which, from Jordan to Jenkins, almost always top economic issues with the white folks.

The candidate filing deadline doesn’t roll around until January. So far, only one Democrat seems inclined to toss a hat in the ring against Paul: former Louisville state Rep. Charles Booker.

On the other side, there’s at least some evidence that Paul’s sell-by date is past with some Republicans. Supposedly, Rep. Andy Barr (R-Lexington) is mulling a primary challenge to Paul. Barr is a McConnell acolyte who interned in his office. 

In politics, as in life, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Paul and Barr differ on style, not substance.

On the House floor, the buttoned-down Barr might not act like a “demented toddler,” Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Linda Blackford’s description of Paul. But Barr and Paul croon shoulder-to-shoulder with McConnell in the Trump toady chorus. 

Paul and Barr (and McConnell) act like “GOP” stands for “God’s Own Party.” They define “free enterprise” as free of unions and free of government regulations designed to protect workers, consumers, and the environment against the greedy excesses inherent in unfettered capitalism.

But if it’s Paul, Barr, or any other Republican, you can bet the candidate will crank up the GOP’s tried-and-true pander machine: the Democrats are the “baby killer party” who want to “take away your guns.” If it’s Booker, who is African American, the GOP’s stock “scary Black man” dog whistle will blare like a Trumpian bullhorn.

Republicans seem sure that Booker’s unabashedly liberal politics make him unelectable. More than a few Democrats fear he’d be buried in a landslide that would cost the party dearly in down-ballot races. Some of them hope a more conservative Democratic candidate might emerge.  

But Paul (or Barr) would be the heavy favorite against any Democrat. Even so, Booker v. Paul or Barr would give Kentuckians the clearest choice they’ve had in a senate election in eons.

Booker agrees with Lincoln (and FDR) that “the legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Booker has outlined his agenda on his “Hood to the Holler” websitewhich calls for a new “Southern Strategy.” (The Republicans hatched the old one in the 1960s and 70s to win over segregationist southern Democratic whites angry with the national party for embracing landmark federal civil rights bills.)

The Booker variant is “not a strategy rooted in hate and division, but in love and inclusion,” according to the website. “Charles, grounded in his faith, has shown that if we show up in an authentic way with an inclusive message that speaks to the real challenges we face, we can break new ground and form new coalitions for economic and racial justice, climate justice and more – even in the most unlikely of places.”

While Booker is the real-deal, few places would seem more unlikely for liberal coalition-building than Kentucky, one of the reddest of the Republican Red states. “Trump 2020” flags, some tattered and faded, still fly, especially in small towns and rural counties, often in tandem with Confederate flags.   

Unlike most Kentucky Democrats, Booker doesn’t sprint from the “liberal” label (or  “progressive” if you prefer). Unlike Paul, he reaches for the honey jar, not the vinegar bottle.

A Paul-Booker matchup would be historic, would grab a ton of national media attention, and would show whether or not Kentucky might be a fertile mission field for progressive politics beyond Louisville and Lexington.

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