'Jumping the shark' with divisive tactics; McConnell should focus on future, not Obama

In the fifth season of the sitcom Happy Days, a water-skiing Fonzie, wearing a leather jacket and played by Henry Winkler, jumped over a shark, and a buzz phrase was born: When a brand has run out of steam and has only gimmicks to keep people interested, it is said to have "jumped the shark."

Sen. Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign jumped the shark Monday when it put out on Twitter a graphic with these words: "There's one reason there's a depression in Eastern Kentucky, Barack Obama."

Anyone who knows anything about Kentucky, no matter their politics, will find this statement insulting to the intelligence.

Eastern Kentucky's poverty predates the current president by a long, long time. Remember all those news stories earlier this year about the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson launching the War on Poverty in Martin County?

Central Appalachia, including much of Eastern Kentucky, has long been this rich country's poorest region, whether coal was booming or busting.

The causes of Eastern Kentucky's long "depression" are deep and complex and present a tough public-policy challenge.

Likewise, the complex questions of science and economics surrounding the future of coal and other fossil fuels may represent the most critical public policy challenge of our time.

Yet, rather than engage this complexity and work toward solutions, McConnell is telling voters it all boils down to them or us.

Last week, during his swing through Eastern Kentucky, the five-term incumbent spoke of "these people" who are attacking "our way of life."

It's the same tack that McConnell's friends in the coal industry tried to deny Obama a second term. They succeeded only in poisoning public discourse and pushing the debate in Kentucky so far out of the mainstream that the state is at serious risk of being left far behind as change inevitably comes to energy and the economy.

How far out of the mainstream?

Consider that McConnell's wife and political surrogate, Elaine Chao, who is appearing in a campaign ad for him, serves on the board of a foundation that has put $50 million into the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign.

Chao also has earned $684,000 serving on the board of a multinational bank that has a policy against investing in mountaintop mining companies or coal-fired power plants.

We would never suggest that President George W. Bush's labor secretary is a closet liberal.

But by the "us vs. them" rules of engagement that McConnell has chosen — and to which Democrats have acquiesced — Chao would be considered a traitor in the "war on coal," one of "these people" attacking "our way of life."

No doubt, when he's not inflaming, dividing and practicing demagoguery in Kentucky, McConnell, along with Chao, has more in common with the movers and shakers on the boards of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Wells Fargo than with Kentuckians who worry about whether they'll have a paycheck next week.

In two years Obama will no longer be president, no matter what.

At that time, Eastern Kentucky will face the same problems it's faced for almost 100 years. Plus, unless McConnell has a secret plan for putting coal back in the ground, the profitable coal reserves will still be depleted.

Kentuckians should demand more of their five-term senator than anti-Obama gimmicks. They should ask what McConnell has to say for himself after 30 years in Washington and if he has any ideas for giving them and their children a brighter future.