WASHINGTON — Smart politics or political cowardice.
Alison Lundergan Grimes' relative silence this past week as Kentucky kicked off its implementation of President Barack Obama's health care law is one or the other, depending on whether the person asked is a Republican or a Democrat.
Grimes, the Kentucky Secretary of State and likely Democratic challenger to U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has had little to say as the state moved to center-stage in the seemingly endless health care drama.
While Gov. Steve Beshear squared off against McConnell and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, Grimes' campaign spent the week unleashing daily press releases ripping McConnell for his part in the shutdown. Neither she nor her campaign had anything to say publicly about the launch of Kentucky's health insurance exchange, which garnered national attention.
If Grimes embraced the law, McConnell's campaign would be thrilled, seeing much-needed ammunition with which to tie Grimes to Obama and Washington Democrats who crafted the law and remain highly unpopular in the state.
But to abandon the Affordable Care Act, which is often called Obamacare, would likely cause Grimes serious trouble with her Democratic base.
Grimes's campaign disputed the idea that the candidate has in any way shrunk from the issue, but a statement to the Lexington Herald-Leader from campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton was similar to what Grimes has said in the past, offering few specifics about how she would try to change the law without repealing it.
"As Secretary of State, Alison has heard from Kentucky businesses and families who are afraid their rates are going up," Norton said. "She is concerned with some aspects of health reform, specifically the regulatory burden placed on small businesses, and believes Congress must come together to provide businesses additional tax relief."
Norton went on to say that Grimes believes "that shutting down the government to make a political point is not the answer."
"As we've already seen, the Republican shutdown is devastating Kentucky's economy and middle class," Norton said. "The health and fiscal security of Kentucky is on the line, but Mitch McConnell is not willing to shed special interest politics to fix it."
McConnell campaign aides were apoplectic as days passed and Grimes didn't volunteer or get pushed by the media into taking a firm position on the rollout of Kentucky's insurance exchange. But her Democratic allies said in interviews that Grimes was taking the right course of action.
Beshear said Grimes was being smart by focusing her efforts on raising money to compete against the millions McConnell has already amassed.
"Right now, she's doing what she needs to do, and that's raise money," Beshear told the Herald-Leader. "You know, that's unfortunately the mother's milk of politics. And Sen. McConnell will have, as we all know, however many millions he wants to run his race. And Alison Grimes has got to spend the vast majority of her time right now raising that money."
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, argued that Beshear's outspoken advocacy — an op-ed in The New York Times, a speech in Washington and national media appearances — gives Grimes "some cover."
Republican allies of McConnell see it differently. To them, Beshear's high volume on the health care law has only made Grimes's silence conspicuous.
After Yarmuth told the Herald-Leader last week that it's "smart politics" for Grimes to stay mum, Kentucky Republican Party spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper sent out a press release blasting Grimes's silence as "an atrocious political tactic."
"Grimes's strategy of calling out her opponents for trying to solve our nation's problems, yet failing to publicly stand behind her own policy positions because of their unpopularity in a state that overwhelmingly disapproves of the Obama agenda isn't going to work," Cooper said. "She thinks Kentuckians will never find out where she really stands. They will. And they deserve better."
Ernest Yanarella, chairman of the University of Kentucky's political science department, said that Grimes is "still wet behind the ears" as a candidate. But since Grimes doesn't have a voting record on the matter, Kentuckians likely aren't yet looking to her for an opinion, he said.
"There's a lot of caution that's apparent in her campaign, and the campaign is still a long one," Yanarella said. "She believes she has the time to read the tea leaves, see where the political winds are blowing and if they seem to be blowing favorably toward the Democrats, she can get on board."
He added: "Grimes is going to be a footnote at most during this time. So I don't expect much from her at all in terms of boldness and risk-taking."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com