As an enthusiastic supporter of Amy McGrath’s campaign for the 6th District House of Representatives seat, please excuse my bitterness over her loss. Most especially, pardon me for my anger at the way Andy Barr ran his campaign and then laced his so-called “gracious” victory speech Tuesday evening with disingenuous and incredulous expressions of ignorance about the causes of the deep polarization and incivility shaping our politics these days.
The simple truth is that his campaign built upon and sought to contribute mightily to deepening and taking advantage of that increasingly toxic divide.
Taking page after page from the Donald Trump campaign manual, he quickly moved from the starting gate to define his opponent before she could define him. He did so in the starkest and most fearsome terms, labeling a candidate who was at best a moderate Democrat attempting to rise above the sordid depths to which our politics has descended.
Then he piled on lie upon lie, using surrogates (veterans, single mothers, coal miners and senior citizens) to hurl a barrage of accusations that bore no relationship to the qualities and stances of McGrath. For most of the contest, Barr refused to run on his feeble voting record in the Congress, depending upon the work of his staff to respond to the minimum task expected of officeholders — fulfilling constituency requests.
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So what does his voting record actually reveal? To name just a handful, he has joined other Republican politicians in working to replace the Affordable Care Act countless times with a weak and feckless health-care alternative that, if his party could agree, would strip Americans with preexisting conditions from enjoying affordable health insurance. He also has a record of kowtowing to the financial and banking industries’ interests in deregulating programs passed during the Obama administration to prevent another 2008 Great Recession.
For all of his rhetorical support for coal miners, mining communities and the coal industry (just how many coal mines exist in the district, really?), he has offered no answer to the continuing demise of Kentucky’s coal industry, whose grave is being dug by various market forces led by natural gas fracking. Barr has offered nothing except environmental deregulation which fails to re-grow good jobs for the 21st century.
Granted, Barr’s successful re-election was abetted by a number of other factors. A positive, upbeat strategy guided McGrath’s television and ground campaign. She defined herself in terms that identified her opponent’s false claims as the point of departure for assuring us that his claims exaggerated her actual policy positions instead of going after Barr’s weaknesses and record and showing how his actions had undercut the district’s citizens and their fundamental interests.
As a result, she committed two costly mistakes, in my professional opinion.
First, as George Lakoff has warned Democratic contenders, framing one’s campaign strategy around rebuffing a Republican opponent’s false allegations gives your opposition an inherent advantage — in the same way that being told not to think of an elephant leads you to think about an elephant — and lends greater credence and focus to your opponent’s arguments and claims.
Second, in adopting Michelle Obama’s advice to Democratic candidates that when “Republicans go low, we go high,” McGrath left in her arsenal her strongest arguments for the policy positions she supported and would work for if elected that needed to be conveyed to would-be voters.
Simply put, her self-identity and policy stances — not Barr’s distortions and false characterizations — needed to frame the debate in this contest.
Perhaps McGrath’s gravest failure though is a continuing weakness of the Kentucky and national Democratic Party. As the county map of the November election results starkly demonstrate, McGrath was unable to speak to and with the Trump Democrats who have been stolen away from her state party in predominately rural counties.
As a long-time Democrat who has risen from a working-class background, I refuse to see as or call those in this voting category a “basket of deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton did. She offended me and my family and millions of other citizens who have been getting the short end of the stick economically and socially and suffering the indignity of such name-calling. If I have been lucky enough to migrate to professional middle-class status, I will not forget my roots, including the slights my family endured or the verbal and policy shaft others have gotten and continue to experience.
Past Democratic leaders like Wendell Ford knew the mobilizing rhetoric and policy actions necessary to resonate with these naturally born Democrats turned disgruntled voters. Perhaps some day, candidates like McGrath, academic liberals and rising state Democratic Party candidates will learn, too. Their political futures depend upon it.
Ernie Yanarella is a community activist and professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.