Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Kentucky Republicans and the Loyalty Gap

"There is a loyalty gap between the two parties that favors the Democrats. This is why the Democrats don’t need an 11th commandment. Party loyalty is not an afterthought to be attached as a later amendment. It’s in their Decalogue."

The Kentucky Republican Party leadership is lining up against the reelection bid of Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Unfortunately, they have lined up in the manner of what, in less politically correct days, used to be called a "Polish firing squad": they have formed themselves in a circle.

This development says a lot about the governing abilities of Republicans, little of it good. It also marks out the difference between Republicans and Democrats in terms of how they handle crises within their respective parties.

Jefferson County Republican Chairman Jack Richardson was the most recent addition to the circle. Richardson's comments go further than Senate President David William's previous remarks in that Richardson has now explicitly called upon the Governor to end his re-election campaign.

In Kentucky Republican politics, there are many Charlie McCarthy's, but only one Edgar Bergen, which makes it fairly easy to determine, when comments like Richardson's hit the press, who was behind them.

Sen. Mitch McConnell has as complete a control over the state Republican Party apparatus as it is possible to have in modern politics. There used to be party machines that served this purpose. That function can now only be performed by strong personalities, and, if Sen. McConnell has nothing more than this (as, in fact, he does), he has that. It is therefore a foregone conclusion that Richardson's remarks reflect the views of McConnell.

McConnell is matched in political acumen by only two other politicians in the state, one a Republican and the other a Democrat. The Republican is David Williams; the Democrat is Greg Stumbo. Gov. Fletcher now has all three aligned against him. One hopes Fletcher has a good dog: the prescribed form of friendship in places of political power.

There are now factions forming in the party: the sitting leadership on one side, and people like Larry Forgy (former gubernatorial candidate) and Bill Stone (former Jefferson County Party Chairman) on the other.

Stone recently criticized Richardson for saying what he said about a sitting governor of his own party, and basically called for Richardson's resignation on the grounds that part of Richardson's job description was to support Republican candidates and officials.

Ted Jackson, another former county party chairman, came to Richardson's defense, telling the Louisville Courier-Journal, "There is no obligation that Jack Richardson be muzzled by anyone."

Well, for one thing, Stone was not trying to muzzle Richardson; he was calling on people like Richardson to muzzle themselves for the good of the party. For another, since when was it okay for party officials to openly criticize sitting officeholders of their own party? Is this really the Kentucky Republican party's new rule?

If so, look for more circular firing squads.

Have Republican Party officials in Kentucky completely forgotten the "11th Commandment"? This was the political maxim devised by California State Republican Chairman Gaylord Parkinson in Ronald Reagan's 1966 campaign for governor to avoid what had happened to Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. It said, as Reagan phrased it, "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican."

This is the rule that grim party officials pull out their spectacles and read to prolife Republicans whenever there is a prochoice Republican running for office. They are supposed to remember that everyone is "on the same team" and to be supportive no matter what. Let's see if we can devise a lesson here: you must support a fellow-Republican even though he is wrong on the most crucial cultural issue of our time, but it is okay to publicly shoot the knee caps out from under a sitting governor because his political skills are perceived as sub par?

Has the 11th commandment experienced the same fate as the principle of smaller, more efficient government among Republicans?

That Republican party officials should find themselves in league with Greg Stumbo against a sitting Republican governor should bring pause to those who labor under the impression that Republicans can govern competently.

Gov. Fletcher has been labeled as "inept" in his handling of the hiring scandal. In truth, he has not handled it well. But he has handled it no worse than any recent governor (with the possible exception of Wallace Wilkinson) would have handled a similar situation. It is a tough spot to be in: the target of an investigation by an attorney general from the opposing party. No other Kentucky governor has had to face anything like it. And the situation is made tougher by the fact that it is Greg Stumbo in the attorney general's chair.

The protestations of Republican Party leaders that they have abandoned this governor because of his inept response to the Stumbo investigation founders on the rocks of one simple fact: they abandoned him well before the investigation was even underway. Does anyone remember the thunderous silence from party leaders the day this investigation was announced in the media? To hear party leaders tell it, they have fought the good find, and run the race, but all to no avail.

Let’s be honest.

There was no concerted attempt of any significance to come to the aid of this governor when he was targetted by the Democrat’s biggest gun. He was abandoned on the field as the first shots were fired.

To ask how Democrats would have handled a situation differently from Republicans is to run up against an important difference between the two parties: one that marks out the Democrats--all other things being equal--as more capable at wielding power. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. The difference is this: the Democrats do the loyalty thing a lot better than Republicans. Maybe the machine politics, still a favored form of operation for Democrats until recent times, is behind this. But whatever the reason, it remains true.

Democrats take care of their own, while Republicans shoot their wounded.

There is a loyalty gap between the two parties that favors the Democrats. This is why the Democrats don’t need an 11th commandment. Party loyalty is not an afterthought to be attached as a later amendment. It’s in their Decalogue.

Democrats have less of a tendency to air their differences publicly and a greater tendency to kiss and make up when it matters. Republicans should take note.

And while we are discussing loyalty, we need to remember one thing. Who was it who was chiefly responsible for Fletcher’s rise to the Governor’s office? Was it not Mitch McConnell himself? Was it not McConnell who groomed Fletcher for this position from the political cradle? If Fletcher is really as inadequate as he is portrayed by those who speak at the Senator’s pleasure, then should not McConnell, far famed for his political perception, have seen all of this before it happened?

Another rule of politics is this: You gotta dance with who brung you. If someone helped to put you where you are, you are beholden to them. But loyalty is not a one-way street. If you’ve gotta dance with who brung you, then you outta have to dance with the one you brought.

Republicans have been in the ascendency in recent years throughout the South. Events in Kentucky have mirrored this trend. But if Republicans continue in their habitual practice of self-immolation, the pendulum could very well swing the other direction.

If Republican leaders in this state think that just issuing Fletcher a blindfold and a cigarette is going to solve their problems, they are sorely mistaken. There are times when breaking the bonds of political loyalty is the lesser of evils. But this is not one of them.

This post also appears as an opinion piece on the Louisville Courier-Journal's online opinion section here. It was also posted on the "On the Right" conservative blog.

© 2006 by Martin Cothran. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be published without the express written consent of the author. These comments are the personal opinions of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official opinion of any other persons or organizations.

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