Keeling: Polls in D.C.; Sex in the Capitol in Frankfort

Herald-leader columnistOctober 20, 2013 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — This and that as Big Brother (sometimes known as the federal government), free at last from his space cadet kidnappers, enjoys his return to the normal state of lunacy on and around the nation's Capitol Hill:

I planned to open today's discussion with a few comments about events on another Capitol Hill much closer to home. But then, up popped U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after weeks, even months, of being something of an invisible man on the national political scene. When no one Whac-A-Moled him, he proceeded to cut a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, ending the shutdown of federal government and avoiding default on the national debt.

And to think, just a few weeks ago, The Daily Beast posted an article referring to McConnell as "useless" in the Senate, rendered so by opposition from the right and left in his bid for re-election in 2016. In reality, since there is very little "left" to be found in Kentucky, it seems more accurate to say McConnell's opponents next year will come at him from the "way, way out right" (the Tea Party) and the "center right" (long the position held by what passes for a Democratic Party in the Bluegrass State). Whatever, McConnell was catching it from both sides, and seemed to be ducking and covering at every turn.

So, what happened to stiffen his backbone a bit? Since I am not, never was and almost assuredly will never be one of his confidants, how the heck would I know? But being an opinionated old curmudgeon with a public platform at my disposal, I can and will take a guess. And my guess is: polls.

During the days and weeks leading up to McConnell resurfacing as the consummate dealmaker he used to be, Republicans took a pounding in the polls. Only the Tea Party fared worse. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released just days before the deal was done, 53 percent of respondents blamed the Republicans for the government shutdown, compared to 31 percent who blamed President Barack Obama. Just 24 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. But even that surpassed the 21 percent favorability rating of the Tea Party. Polls conducted by Gallup and The Washington Post/ABC produced similar results.

(I have long believed the emergence of the Tea Party had more to do with antagonism toward Obama than anything else and it would disappear once he left office. These recent poll results suggest the demise might come sooner than I expected.)

Now, I'm just an interested observer sitting over here on the political sidelines wising off about and to the players. If I can look at the recent poll numbers and conclude McConnell (and other Republicans) have nowhere to go but up by moving back toward centrist positions, I suspect he got there way ahead of me. The one thing I've never doubted about McConnell is his ability to know which way the political wind blows.

If the poll results were the writing on the wall, the tea leaves, the Tarot cards that moved him, I give him credit for reading them much better than his fellow Republicans, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and 6th District U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, both of whom voted against ending the government shutdown and avoiding default on the national debt.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, another R, also voted against the deal. But since Massie's 4th District is where Tea Partiers want to go when they die, his "no" vote played to the crowd in the home of the Ark Park. Barr, on the other hand, represents a swing district, where his embrace of all things Tea Party could be far more problematic when he runs for a second term in 2014.

And Paul, if he's not just posturing to wring the most out of his 15 minutes of fame, has his eye on the grand prize of succeeding Obama in the White House. But the longer he and Republican rivals U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio keep trying to pad their Tea Party creds, the greater the risk they will become 2016's Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michele Bachman.

Now, back to the original plan: "Sex in the Capitol," the one sitting on a hill overlooking the Kentucky River as it meanders through this city.

A special House committee considering Speaker Greg Stumbo's petition for censure or expulsion of former state Rep. John Arnold convened again Wednesday and settled on an attorney to hire.

That brings the panel's grand total of significant actions during three meetings scattered over the last month to two: electing Democratic Rep. Jeffery Donahue of Fairdale as chairman and picking Northern Kentucky lawyer Patrick Hughes to provide legal guidance.

Not that there's any huge rush since Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis facing multiple ethics complaints and lawsuits involving allegations of sexual harassment, took expulsion off the table by resigning. And censure will be censure whether it comes quickly or not so quickly. Still, the committee ought to get about its job at a pace that wouldn't make it a longshot in a snail race.

Republican Rep. Robert Benvenuti of Lexington wants the panel to invite all Legislative Research Committee employees to share their thoughts and experiences regarding sexual harassment in the workplace with the committee, its legal counsel, or the investigator Benvenuti wants the committee to hire to assist its counsel.

If I were Louisville lawyer Thomas Clay, the attorney for the women who have already filed lawsuits in this affair, I would love for the committee to go along with Benvenuti's proposal.

Whatever evidence the committee gathers from such an exercise could help Clay make the case that a culture of tolerance for sexual harassment exists and/or has existed within the LRC.

From another perspective, the kind of wide-ranging fact-finding Benevuti proposes could be something of a lifeline of sorts for Democrats by increasing the chances a Republican lawmaker or two could be linked to a scandal now wholly owned by House D's.

Still, Stumbo's petition seems sufficiently narrow in scope to limit the committee to considering Arnold's case and not much more. And I will be surprised if the committee goes beyond those limits.

Republicans can spin it any way they want, but they can't feel good about Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes outraising the man with the Midas fund-raising touch $2.5 million to $2.27 million the first quarter she's in the 2016 U.S. Senate race.

Reach Larry Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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