Kentucky's new role as a trusted mediator

Gov. Steve Beshear, checking out a Kynect health insurance exchange kiosk, has been bringing a flattering spotlight to Kentucky.
Gov. Steve Beshear, checking out a Kynect health insurance exchange kiosk, has been bringing a flattering spotlight to Kentucky.

Kentucky's time is now.

The commonwealth is poised to assume an exciting role as a national model for responsible leadership in state-federal relations. This is no less than an historic moment in which Kentucky rediscovers — and reasserts — its heritage as a trusted mediator among disparate factions in Washington, D.C. and among states.

To understand what has happened to create this unexpected window of opportunity let's shadow Gov. Steve Beshear over the past month.

On Oct. 4, Beshear attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the University of Kentucky's Gatton School of Business. This was good news, but not unusual, as he met cordially with business leaders and university donors at an enjoyable event. Less known to the Kentucky-based crowd was that a few hours earlier the governor had been featured in a nationwide interview on National Public Radio, drawing attention and applause for his success in rallying the state to coordinate with federal health care insurance laws.

The NPR interview was sandwiched between Beshear's op-ed on why Kentuckians needed Obamacare, published in The New York Times on Sept. 26 and a glowing tribute to Beshear's leadership, also in the New York Times, by columnist Trip Gabriel on Oct. 19.

What's important for Kentuckians to keep in mind is that this kind of positive national coverage is unusual and priceless. It's rare for Kentucky, and it also is coveted by governors and states nationwide. Beshear's op-ed received over 300 comments, characterized by overwhelming praise — and a lot of pleasant surprise about Kentucky.

Perhaps the message is that Kentucky has been a well-kept secret?

The ascent of Kentucky's governor and the state's programs into the national spotlight is propitious because it coincides with the descent of North Carolina as the beacon of progressive reform in the South. For decades, the Tar Heel state has been hailed as a model of innovation, but its performance recently in state and federal elections has dulled the luster of that reputation.

Meanwhile, Kentucky has quietly and persistently gained a foothold for coexistence, no matter how fragile or precarious.

My own view is that North Carolina and Kentucky have inverted characteristics. North Carolina's reputation for progressive reform has long tended to surpass its reality. For Kentucky, it's the reverse — for many years our reality has been better than our national image.

Why Kentucky now?

First, it's the only Southern state to cooperate wholeheartedly with federal policies in health care.

Second, it's an attractive state because Beshear has presented a reasonable and firm persona — an effective Democratic governor in a red state. The American public has tired of the extreme self-promotion of governors such as New Jersey's Chris Christie or Rick Perry of Texas.

Third, Kentucky is sufficiently divided and diverse that this coexistence within the state is just the tonic the nation needs as a model in the wake of the fractious federal shutdown. Even Sen. Mitch McConnell knows that the renegade radicals of the right did a lot of damage. It's a time for moderation — and perhaps for compromise and compliance, if not cooperation.

And here is the strange twist: Kentucky's weaknesses right now are part of its positive appeal nationwide. Who wants to hear about a problem-free state? Kentucky now comes across as a state with problems — in health, education and employment — and at the same time as a state that is working persistently on solutions. In other words, Kentucky is intriguing because it is realistic and reasonable.

Important to remember is our heritage. No state lost more in terms of economic development and growth due to the ravages of the Civil War. We all know about the legacy of Henry Clay as the Great Compromiser. But he is not alone. Kentucky has had a long tradition of its representatives being sought out and trusted by various constituencies and parties nationwide to reach a common ground. After all, if one could handle the disputes within Kentucky, Washington, D.C. would then be manageable as well.

I can hardly match Henry Clay as the Great Compromiser. But here's my best offer for Kentucky now: Let's agree to be irrational in basketball and reasonable in politics. It could be a win-win — with national attention for the commonwealth on both courts.