Politics & Government

Sam Youngman: What Rand Paul and Kentucky Democrats have in common

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky talked with a supporter last week during a campaign event held at a restaurant in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky talked with a supporter last week during a campaign event held at a restaurant in Ottumwa, Iowa. Associated Press

I don’t know who first made the joke, but the first time I heard it was in the closing days of the 2004 Democratic primary in New Hampshire.

As Joe Lieberman and Wes Clark battled for one of the handful of false “tickets” out of the Granite State, Chris Lehane, a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore who had gone on to work for Clark, took aim at Lieberman.

“He’s like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense — he’s dead and just doesn’t know it yet,” Lehane said.

Given Lieberman’s role as his party’s vice presidential nominee just four years earlier and his inability to gain any real polling traction, the dig seemed harsh if hilarious.

That joke has been dusted off and used by plenty of operatives, but more than a decade later it seems relevant to both U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign and the Kentucky Democratic Party, and it has been on a loop in my mind as I’ve watched Paul and the state’s Democrats insist that their futures are bright.

The reality is that they’re both dead, even if they don’t know it yet.

Despite the pretense of suspense enveloping both situations, the only real outstanding questions are how and when the final chapters will be written and whether there is life after death for either.

Kentucky Democrats are facing a number of existential questions, and nobody has any real answers.

House Democrats are claiming unity and putting on a brave, even mocking face after House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover’s prediction of a “historic” Monday didn’t come to pass, but behind closed doors party members are at one another’s throats, pointing fingers over recent, catastrophic losses and sharply divided about the way forward.

There are fights about who should be the party’s next chairman, potential stars have gone into retreat to wait for a more palatable environment and they still don’t have candidates in place for two of the four special elections in March.

But that all amounts to drama without suspense — Kentucky is a decidedly red state now, and it’s only a matter of time before that transformation is officially complete.

The tension between conservative, rural Democrats and progressive, urban Democrats isn’t going away.

It’s a Rubik’s Cube with missing tiles, two opposing forces crammed into a coalition that exists only in the minds of political strategists who operate in theory, lose in reality and cash their checks either way.

The old faces and old names who have engineered some of those defeats probably will enjoy a little more time in the driver’s seat, but they are simply chauffeurs to the party’s ultimate demise because it looks increasingly as if the Democratic Party will have to go all the way over a cliff before it can start to rebuild.

And that’s why Paul’s immediate future is decidedly brighter than that of Kentucky Democrats.

While the senator forges ahead with his endless wedgie of a presidential campaign, enduring repeated embarrassments — the most recent being demoted from the main stage at this week’s GOP debate — it’s hard to imagine that he will lose his Senate seat.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is contemplating a challenge (Paul’s op-ed in Tuesday’s Herald-Leader certainly indicates that Gray got Paul’s attention), but the bottom line is that just more than two weeks before the filing deadline, Democrats don’t officially have a credible challenger to a candidate who has left himself tantalizingly vulnerable to defeat.

And like the Democratic Party, Paul probably has miles of embarrassment to go before things start looking up.

Paul has no way to get off the ballot for the March caucus he engineered in Kentucky. And given the polling in other states and the path Paul faces before Kentucky Republicans vote, it’s not hard to see Paul losing in his own backyard, regardless of whether he has dropped out of the race by then.

But the increasingly conservative nature of Kentucky voters, combined with the increasingly dysfunctional and uncertain capabilities of the Kentucky Democratic Party, will probably pave the way for Paul to return to the Senate.

After all, Matt Bevin was a deeply flawed candidate, and he won by 9 points.

That’s the political reality of Kentucky these days, and it makes for a painfully predictable 2016.

Is there reason to think that Paul will accept the Republican nomination in Cleveland this summer or that House Speaker Greg Stumbo will continue to preside over a Democratic majority for years?

Sure. It’s the same reason I have a pocketful of Powerball tickets.

But the smart money is on the collapse of both, with the demise of one allowing for the quick return of the other.

And that’s about as suspenseful as watching The Sixth Sense for a second time.