Archive for the ‘Democratic Party’ Category

Why I am no longer a Republican

First published April 9, 2016

When Ronald Reagan became a Republican in 1962, he explained his decision like this: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”

I felt something similar when, several days ago, I went to the Nelson County Clerk’s Office and changed my voter registration from Republican to independent.

The party I joined when I turned 50 is not the same Republican Party we have today — although the transformation was already beginning with the birth of the tea party movement.

The Grand Old Party that attracted me as I became more conservative in my prime was one that balanced a belief in personal responsibility with a commitment to opportunity. It respected individual liberties, but also cherished community and traditional virtues. It practiced fiscal sobriety, but offered a hand to the disabled and disadvantaged. It had a rich heritage of racial equality going back to the time of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, when the Democrats were the party that elevated states’ rights above human rights.

The party’s compassionate conservatism was rooted in Judeo-Christian principles of justice. It can be summed up in these words from President George W. Bush’s first inaugural address: “Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities, and all of us are diminished when they are hopeless. … I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”

That perspective has been evident in policies such as charter schools in inner cities to give poor children a chance at a better life, federal funding for faith-based initiatives that work because they address the root causes of poverty and addiction rather than money for big bureaucratic programs that don’t, enterprise zones that give businesses incentives to locate in depressed areas, and humanitarian and military aid to victims of brutality in other countries. It is based on the biblical belief that were are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

In the past seven years, this compassionate conservatism has been supplanted by radical libertarianism, which holds that our brothers and sisters are on their own and that selfishness is a virtue not a vice. It is rooted in the nihilistic philosophy of Ayn Rand rather than the traditional philosophy of her contemporary, Russell Kirk, the father of modern conservatism.

In the current election, though, we have seen something uglier than libertarianism at work. It is a populism that hearkens back to the Know-Nothing movement of the mid-19th century and the John Birch movement of the mid-20th. It stokes the fires of bigotry against anyone whose religion, skin color or country of origin is different than the majority’s, and it has an authoritarian attitude.

What other way is there to describe the faction of the party that wants a caudillo (strong man) like Donald Trump? He is someone who quotes the founding father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, who initially refused to reject the endorsement of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, who incites his followers to acts of violence against peaceful demonstrators, and has said that if he becomes president, he will undermine the First Amendment freedom of the press.

The likeliest alternative to Trump in this year’s presidential race is Ted Cruz, a tea party ideologue whose idea of governing is to repudiate efforts at bipartisan compromise — even compromise with the mainstream of his own party — and shut down the government if he doesn’t get his way. He wants to eliminate the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education and Commerce, as well as the IRS, and he favors a flat tax that would reduce the responsibility of the rich and increase the burden of the poor. He would deport Hispanic immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children. He would dismantle the law that prohibits insurance companies from refusing to sell policies to people with cancer and has added tens of millions of people to the rolls of the insured for the first time.

Health insurance has long been one of my concerns, and six years after the Affordable Care Act, I’m still waiting to see what “repeal and replace” means. The only specifics congressional Republicans offer would allow companies to sell policies across state lines — which sounds like a good idea, but means the policies won’t be regulated because the regulating is done by the states — and would replace guaranteed insurance with tax-free health savings accounts.

Really? That’s all they’ve got after six years?

The great irony is that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is a warmed-over Republican idea from the early 1990s that Republicans rejected en masse as soon as President Barack Obama accepted it.

I’m also embarrassed by Republicans’ embrace of absurd conspiracy theories, such as the notion that President Obama is not a natural-born American citizen or that he “hates America,” or that his wife ridiculed Old Glory — based on lip (mis)reading, or that fossil-fueled global warming is a hoax cooked up by the world’s climate scientists to keep government research money rolling in to pay their salaries. As one of my curmudgeonly college professors sometimes asked her students: How can you be so damned dumb?

I cannot return to the Democratic Party of my youth, because it now insists on a “right” to abort babies up until the moment of birth. It equates religious liberty with bigotry, and believes Christianity is something best practiced in private by consenting adults. It supports public sector unions that make it almost impossible to get rid of inept teachers. It seeks to confiscate the wealth of the nation’s wealth creators. But I can’t go back to the Republican Party — until it comes to its senses.

Sanders, last socialist, runs for the roses

If you ask the odds makers, they’ll tell you the Democratic presidential nomination contest is still a one-horse race, with Hillary Clinton sure to get the garland of roses.

But Bernie Sanders, who announced Thursday he’s in the running, reminds me of Mine That Bird, the 50-1 upstart that crashed the blue bloods’ party and made Bob Baffert choke on his mint julep by winning the Kentucky Derby in 2009.

Sanders certainly isn’t the candidate of the elite. Right out of the starting gate, he told the billionaires he didn’t want their filthy lucre. One of his main issues will be to change the rules so the Koch brothers and their ilk can’t buy elections and legislators anymore.

He wants to level the field to benefit the people who make two-dollar bets on long shots.

This recent post on his Facebook page is classic Sanders: “During the last two years, the wealthiest 14 Americans saw their wealth increase by $157 billion. This … is more wealth than is owned, collectively, by 130 million Americans. This country does not survive morally, economically or politically when so few have so much and so many have so little.”

Leave it to Bernie to bring up the topics one isn’t supposed to talk about in polite conversation.

Two things about the senator from Vermont make him an intriguing choice for the Democrats’ standard bearer. One is that he isn’t a Democrat. In fact, he’s the longest-serving independent (meaning a person who belongs to no political party) in the history of Congress. The other is that he’s a democratic socialist — the last of a dying breed. The only other socialist I know of who has served on Capitol Hill in my lifetime (I’m 54) was Ronald Dellums, the radical congressman from Berkeley who served 13 terms until 1998.

Democratic socialists believe in the ownership and control of the economy by the working class — not necessarily through the federal government, but by democratic means such as employee ownership of businesses, worker representation in corporate boardrooms, utility and farm cooperatives, although in some cases, such as single-payer health insurance, it is through government.

I’ve been fascinated by Sanders since the early 1980s, when he was the mayor of Burlington and Rolling Stone did an article on him called “Red Mayor in the Green Mountains.” In Professor Allen Singleton’s urban government and politics class at Eastern Kentucky University, I wrote a paper on how Sanders was able to become mayor of the biggest city in what was once a rock-ribbed Republican state by representing the poor and elderly and public servants such as police, firefighters and sanitation workers.

While working on the class project, I wrote to Sanders and he wrote back, answering my question about why he chose not to be a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Michael Harrington’s organization formed to work within the Democratic Party to move it to the left on labor and economic issues.

Full disclosure: In college I was briefly a member of the DSA and a disciple of Harrington, whose book “The Other America” was credited with inspiring the War on Poverty and the Great Society in the 1960s. But I’ve evolved over the past 30-some years so that I am today a Burkean conservative and a distributist (one who likes the free market and property ownership so much he thinks the healthiest society is one in which they are as widely distributed as possible). I’m also a registered Republican, although for most of the last decade I’ve been an independent.

But enough about me; this is about Bernie.

Sanders served as mayor of Burlington for a decade, successfully revitalizing its downtown and making the city the first in the country to have publicly funded community trust housing. In 1990, he was elected as Vermont’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and was re-elected seven times until going to the Senate in 2006.

With his unruly white hair, rumpled suit, wide glasses and acerbic manner, the senator, whom Vermonters affectionately call by his first name, has been enormously popular, though he lacks the charisma of a Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama.

He rages against colleagues who would privatize Social Security and cut funds for public education yet advocate more tax breaks for billionaires. Have they no shame?

His is a real-life “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” story. But can he make it all the way to the top?

The reason he’s running for the first time as a Democrat is that he doesn’t want to be a spoiler like Ralph Nader in 2000, when he ran as a third-party candidate and cost Al Gore the election.

Clinton and Jeb Bush are the favorites, but it enlivens the debate to have candidates like the militant socialist Sanders and hard-right libertarian Rand Paul in it.

And as Mine That Bird, Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul have proven, in horse races, anything can happen.

Comment

Kentucky a model for bipartisan progress

Published Jan. 9, 2015

In his last State of the Commonwealth message to a joint session of the Kentucky House and Senate, Gov. Steve Beshear on Wednesday night was exuberant in describing the progress Kentucky has made under his leadership since he took office at the beginning of a devastating global recession.

The unemployment rate, he said, has fallen from 10.7 percent to 6 percent and is still dropping. Last year alone, manufacturing, service and technology companies announced 350 new location and expansion projects — nearly one a day. In 2013, the state had the highest percentage of business growth in the nation. The state shattered international trade records for the past two years.

Under the state’s health exchange for the federal Affordable Care Act, Kynect, and his expansion of Medicaid, Kentucky had the second biggest decrease in the nation in the percentage of uninsured, from 20 to 12 percent in one year.

The state raised its mandatory high school graduation rate and its percentage of graduates, greatly improved college and career readiness and established rigorous education performance standards.

By almost every measure, Kentucky is better off than it was when Beshear became governor, and compares favorably to most other states. But the governor was careful to give credit not only to his administration, but also to the state legislators — Republicans and Democrats — and he described how a change in attitude and atmosphere had contributed to those successes and the “sense of optimism and energy” they have fostered.

In 2007, state government was “poisoned by rivalries and partisanship,” and an atmosphere of “derision and division.”

State leaders, “distracted by partisan gamesmanship,” forgot why they were elected, and the results were dire.

“Kentucky was broke and broken,” he said.

That has changed dramatically under the leadership of Republican Senate President Robert Stivers and Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, both of Eastern Kentucky, who earned special mention by the governor.

Left unsaid, but implied, was that Stivers’ more collaborative leadership, which is a stark contrast to the Machiavellian approach of his predecessor, David Williams, has made a huge difference. Stivers is a partisan and a redoubtable adversary, but he also knows how to get things done by working with his friends across the aisle and on the other end of the Capitol without compromising principles.

Bipartisan government is something the extremists of the right and left just can’t comprehend or choose to ignore.

Beshear decried the “inflammatory rhetoric” that substitutes for meaningful public discourse outside the mainstream media.

“Places like talk radio and social media thrive on disrespect, insults, intolerance and downright hatefulness,” the governor said. “It’s easy to get caught up in this negative dialogue, to believe that such rancor is mandatory, and to conclude that consensus and collaboration are cardinal sins. But that’s not what being a leader is about, and it’s not what we’ve seen here in Frankfort in the last seven years. Instead, we have fostered a respectful relationship that reaches across political lines, geographic areas and branches of government. And we’ve done so because we have recognized the distinction between campaigning and governing.”

There is a place for partisan politics, said Beshear, who is strongly partisan when it comes to waging campaigns. But it is not after the elections, when lawmakers and administrators are responsible for putting aside their differences and doing the people’s business.

There’s a lesson that can be learned from Kentucky’s example, from City Hall to Congress. Let’s hope that 2015 will be a year when we see more compromise, civility and mutual respect in local and national, as well as state, government.

Gov. Jerry Brown — 40 years on

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Before there was a tea party, before Bill Clinton declared the era of big government “over,” even before the Reagan Revolution, there was Jerry Brown.

The son of a 1960s California governor, Brown was elected governor himself in 1974. He was an enigma. A former Jesuit seminarian who practiced Zen meditation, he dated country rock music star Linda Ronstadt, slept on the floor of a rented room and drove himself to work in a Plymouth rather than live in the opulent governor’s mansion and ride in the back of a limo.

A Democrat like his father, Edmund G. Brown Sr., the young governor defied ideological labels. He stood with Cesar Chavez and Hispanic farm workers against California’s agribusiness interests, yet he was a small-is-beautiful candidate, preaching limited government and riding a wave of property tax revolt to victory.

He was far more frugal than his Republican predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who had signed into law the largest tax increase in the state’s history and nearly doubled spending despite his popular image as a fiscal conservative.

Jerry Brown was the first politician I idolized. I was 15 when he ran for president in 1976, winning primaries against Jimmy Carter, despite having entered the race at the 11th hour. I followed his career as he ran for the White House again in 1980, and in 1992 on a flat-tax, anti-establishment platform.

Brown served as a missionary with Mother Teresa in India, became the tough-as-nails mayor of one of America’s toughest cities, Oakland, and earned a reputation as a crime-fighting attorney general.

In 2010, Brown was elected again as governor at a time when the state was in fiscal crisis, following the market collapse, recession and the administration of liberal Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. In that race, he beat billionaire eBay executive Meg Whitman. In one of the most bizarre commercials of the campaign, Whitman’s own words were used to endorse Brown. It quoted her as saying, “30 years ago, anything was possible in this state,” and that was why, Whitman explained, she came to California.

Then the commercial reminded voters it was Brown who was governor when Whitman went there, and he who had cut waste, balanced the budget, cut taxes by $4 billion and helped create 1.9 million new jobs.

Very clever, and very effective.

When he first ran for governor, Brown was 36 and a bachelor with movie-star good looks. Today he is bald, married and 76, making him both the oldest and youngest governor in the state’s history.

According to an Oct. 28 story on Politico, Brown, with a 58 percent approval rating in an era of anti-incumbent feeling, is almost certain to defeat his Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, Tuesday — almost 40 years to the day of winning his first term.

According to Politico, during his current term, Brown has led his state in turning a $25 billion deficit into a $4 billion surplus, got voters to approve California’s first broad-based tax increase in 25 years, and presided over the creation of a million new jobs and a 4 percent drop in unemployment.

Jerry Brown, who was dubbed “Governor Moonbeam” by the late Mike Royko, the Chicago newspaper columnist, is a bit eccentric; that’s true, but so is California.

It may be that Brown’s strange mashup of hippie philosophy, Clint Eastwood frontier justice and budgetary austerity may be just what the Sunshine State needs now.

 

This is my declaration of independence

Saturday, July 12, 2014 at 11:52 am

Come all ye conservatives and liberals who want to conserve the good things and be free— Wendell Berry

These lines of verse, which have stayed in my memory for years, are from “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union.”

Wendell Berry

It was first included in Wendell Berry’s “Entries” in 1997 and was recently published in paperback in “The Mad Farmer Poems,” a collection featuring Berry’s memorable character, as well as contributions of other writers in whose work the barmy farmer appears.

When I visited the Morrison Book Shop in Lexington last Sunday after church, I bought a copy of “The Mad Farmer Poems” and have been enjoying revisiting those verses.

The older I get, the more I relate to the contrariness of the Mad Farmer, who seems eccentric only because he is a voice of sanity in a world gone round the bend.

The poem from which the lines are taken is not about seceding from the republic, which some malcontents were seriously advocating some years ago. Rather, it is about seceding from the madness of a modern society in which we’ve forgotten traditional virtues that are the bedrock of our civilization.

Berry calls for us to secede from the union of power and money, power and secrecy, work and debt, work and despair. He implores us to look beyond ourselves for our own good and that of others.

From the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation,

secede into care for one another

and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.

Wise words we would do well to heed in this nihilistic age.

Although this poem isn’t overtly political, it resonates with me on that level.

I am dismayed by our current hyper-partisanship, which is exacerbated by the endless echo chamber of social media and by the removal of limits on money in politics.

I’m sickened by bile I read every day on Facebook, and so should we all be — regardless of whether it’s directed against child refugees from Guatemala, the poor of Appalachia, a mentally troubled Marine, the wife of our current president, homosexuals or evangelical Christians.

My personal beliefs and values don’t align perfectly with the dogma of the Democratic or Republican Party. That’s why, for most of the past decade, I have been a registered independent.

That doesn’t mean I vote for independent candidates; I usually don’t because they almost invariably play the role of spoiler in our two-party system. What it does mean is that I believe in bipartisan cooperation and don’t unquestioningly swear allegiance to any faction.

If this country had a political party that protected religious liberty, respected people of faith, affirmed the sanctity of life and the sacredness of marriage, upheld traditional standards of sexual morality, treated the working class with dignity and fairness, demonstrated compassion for the poor, the aged and those with disabilities, respected thrift and effort and avoided the temptation to confiscate the wealth of those who create it, welcomed immigrants, treated human trafficking victims with humanity instead of contempt, guarded the environment, guaranteed equality for women and minorities, protected children from evil influences, valued civility in discourse and compromise in decision-making, and worked for freedom and opportunity for all, I might join it. But there isn’t a party like that and hasn’t been in my lifetime. Therefore I strive to maintain a degree of independence while working for community on a scale small enough to make a difference.

In the unending war of partisan rancor, I am a conscientious objector.

Like the Mad Farmer, I walk quietly away.

Will Republicans repeat their mistakes of 1964?

Fifty years ago, the Republican Party dealt itself a nearly fatal blow. After eight years of peace and prosperity under Dwight Eisenhower and the narrow defeat of Richard Nixon by John F. Kennedy, delegates to the 1964 GOP Convention in San Francisco nominated as their presidential candidate the hard right libertarian Barry Goldwater.

Rand Paul, shown in Bardstown, Ky., in 2013, said recently moderates are not the future of the Republican Party, but conservative voice Joe Scarborough makes the argument in his new book, "Right Path," that only a moderate, principled conservatism and bipartisan approach to government, in the tradition of Eisenhower and Reagan can enable the GOP to win presidential elections.

Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, suggested Social Security be voluntary and advocated giving field commanders authority to use nuclear weapons. He rejected compromise with moderate members of his party and declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Republicans suffered humiliating defeat to Lyndon Johnson, losing all states but five in the Old South and Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. Democrats also won two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, which enabled them to enact a host of liberal programs.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

In “The Conscience of a Conservative” — published by a small press in Shepherdsville, Ky., in 1960 — Goldwater argued that most Americans are conservatives, but Republicans lose elections because they nominate moderate candidates who are indistinguishable from Democrats, so people don’t vote.

How often have we heard that argument from the right?

We are a conservative country in the sense that we believe in conserving tradition and order. Radicalism of the left or the right hasn’t gained much ground here in the last 150 years.

For a brief time, though, radicals controlled the GOP. The John Birch Society, which has experienced a recent resurgence, was influential. Young Americans for Freedom, using subversive tactics learned from the Young Communists, infiltrated Republican groups on college campuses and purged moderates from the ranks.

After the 1964 rout, Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky spoke for the true party of Abraham Lincoln when he wrote: “I do not want to be in a position of saying ‘I told you so,’ but it is true that those of us who had served with Senator Goldwater and knew his views could foresee some of the problems we had during the election.”

Fortunately, the moderates returned to power under effective leaders, including Govs. William Scranton of Pennsylvania and George Romney of Michigan and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. In 1968 and 1972, the party reclaimed the White House with Nixon, although Gerald Ford had to finish his second term.

Recently, I read Joe Scarborough’s new book, “The Right Path.” The former Republican congressman from Florida and host of “Morning Joe” might seem an unlikely advocate for a moderate approach for GOP candidates, but he makes a good argument.

Thanks to gerrymandering, hardliners can capture congressional seats, but if they ever want to elect another Republican president, Scarborough contends, they must reject the rhetoric and ideology of the tea party and rediscover the legacy of Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan “which is one of principled conservatism combined with clear-eyed pragmatism.”

He makes the case that for 40 years, from 1968 to 2008, the Republican Party was the political mainstream. But since its base became captive to the likes of Sarah Palin and Rand Paul, the party has been losing.

So effectively has the right come to dominate the party that Mitt Romney, a moderate like his father, ran as a hardliner to win the nomination in 2012 and retain the base. He described himself as “severely conservative,” denounced Obamacare, which was modeled on his own program, and told donors that people who qualify for income tax returns are leeches.

In 2008, traditional conservative John McCain felt he had to put Palin on his ticket to satisfy the far right. Big fail.

Later McCain called Senators Paul and Ted Cruz “wacko birds.”

The libertarian message may excite the GOP’s base, but it doesn’t convince the Democrats and independents it needs to give it a majority.

“We Republicans have been at our best when we are true to one of the deepest insights of conservatism: that politics, like mankind itself, isn’t perfectible in a fallen universe. And if we continue to let the perfect become the enemy of the good, then we will continue to dwindle in influence,” Scarborough wrote.

That’s sound advice for a party that seems on the verge of making the same mistakes it made in 1964.

It’s true that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.

Politics and candor aren’t incompatible

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes are as different as apples and avocados.

The 72-year-old Senate Republican leader has evolved from Rockefeller liberal to Reagan conservative and is courting tea party libertarians in his toughest contest in 30 years. His 35-year-old challenger is a Clinton centrist like her daddy, a former Democratic Party boss.

One thing they have in common, though, is they’re intent on managing the message.

I became a reporter the same year McConnell became a senator, and I’ve been impressed and annoyed by his ability to stay on message. Ask him a question, and he’ll give you a scripted statement. Ask it in a different way, and he’ll repeat it.

That seems to be something Grimes has learned as well.

Grimes has been criticized for being short on specifics. So when she came to Bardstown a few days before the primary, I prepared a list of specific questions. Before I could question her, an aide, Preston Maddock, questioned me about what I was going to ask her.

I had only a moment, so I rolled two questions into one. I noted that she had been attacked in ads linking her to President Obama’s “war on coal” and “Obamacare,” so I asked her to tell me one thing she would do to protect coal jobs and one change she would make to the Affordable Care Act.

I wrote that Grimes “didn’t directly answer the question” about coal jobs. On health reform, I quoted her as saying Congress should allow people to keep their doctors and “streamline the enrollment process.”

Short on specifics.

Matthew Fogle, our PLG-TV reporter, didn’t get to ask a question. He also tried to video my interview, but Maddock thrust his hand into the lens and said they were out of time. Fogle tweeted that Grimes didn’t have time for him, and I got a call from the campaign asking that we take down the Twitter feed and Facebook post.

Later I got a call from campaign press secretary Charly Norton asking that I “tweak” the line about Grimes not answering the coal jobs question. Didn’t I receive a copy of her jobs plan? Well, no. But that isn’t how I operate. I’m a reporter. I don’t eat handouts.

Norton sent me a link to the jobs plan. It was boilerplate. As a senator, Grimes would “spare no effort to persuade Washington’s policy makers that a coherent, rational energy policy must have a meaningful, long-term place for coal,” and would call on the president “to do the right thing.”

Short on specifics.

It hasn’t always been that way. In the 1980s, politicians gave detailed policy statements. A few, like Senate mavericks Rand Paul of Kentucky and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, still do, but they’re the exceptions. They’re also respected and popular. Maybe there’s a connection.

It’s hard to imagine a time before social media and sound bites when candidates said what they meant and meant what they said. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Bobby Kennedy sought the antiwar youth vote but had the guts to tell college students their deferments were unfair to poor black kids who were fighting in their place. He even admitted his culpability in the Vietnam debacle, quoting Socrates: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride.”

Admit mistakes? Repent of pride? Unthinkable!

Kennedy also talked to hostile medical students at Indiana University about providing health clinics for poor neighborhoods. When one student asked where the money would come from, Kennedy pointed his finger at him, and said, “From you!”

Specific, honest and to the point.

We need that kind of candor again.

Leading with the head and the heart

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Those words, spoken by the king in William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” are true of any leader, whose slightest miscalculation could cost him greatly.

Another of the Bard’s kings, Henry VI, said, “My crown is in my heart, not on my head …”

It takes a good head and a good heart, however, to be a good leader.

I’ve been covering a federal court case involving same-sex couples who are suing Kentucky to require its recognition of marriages performed legally in 17 other states.

Two of the plaintiffs, Jim Meade and Luke Barlowe, were married in Iowa in 2009, but it remains uncertain whether their marriage is valid in Kentucky. In 2004, 75 percent of the commonwealth’s voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a covenant between “one man and one woman” — which is how it’s been defined in Western civilization for 2,000 years.

In a decision that could radically change that definition, U.S. Distict Judge John G. Heyburn II of Louisville on Feb. 27 issued a final order subsequent to his ruling that Kentucky laws that prohibit recognition of legal same-sex marriages violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and are therefore “void and unenforceable.”

The next day, Heyburn granted a stay of his order until March 20 to give the state time to decide whether or not to appeal.

The state’s decision, which came Tuesday morning, surprised many.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway first said he would not fight the judge’s decision. In a teary statement, he said he had prayed about his decision and sought the counsel of his wife, Elizabeth, and others. He said he came to the “inescapable conclusion” that if he appealed the decision, he would be defending discrimination. “That I will not do,” he said.

Soon after Conway announced his decision, Gov. Steve Beshear declared his. Even if the attorney general would not appeal the ruling, he said, he would go forward, using independent counsel.

Beshear said “the opportunity for legal chaos is real” because other courts might reach other decisions.

The governor said he understood it is an emotional issue for people on both sides, but he believes it is one that ultimately should be decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to settle it once and for all.

When I heard about Conway’s decision, I thought it was gutsy. This is a man who wants to be governor, and he may be the Democratic frontrunner for 2015. Although taking a liberal position on same-sex marriage might help him with the party’s activists, it would ruin any hope he had of winning the general election. Kentucky is a state where even most Democrats are conservatives, and in recent polling, a slight majority of Kentuckians still oppose gay marriage, usually for religious reasons. They believe the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is unambiguous.

Unlike Conway, Beshear has no political concerns other than his legacy. He’s more or less said he’s done with running for office — not because he’s long in the tooth, but because he’s had a remarkable career, as a state legislator, attorney general, lieutenant governor and two-term governor with national stature, after having lost a race for that office 20 years before he was elected to it.

Retiring to his Clark County horse farm to live out the rest of his days with Jane Beshear as a country gentleman and elder statesman has got to be more attractive than getting into the quagmire that Washington has become in this young century.

The day of the governor’s judgment, I spoke with Barlowe, who felt betrayed by Beshear’s stand. He and his partner have waited a long time for the recognition they feel they deserve — 45 years. As he told Conway, they’ve been together longer than he’s been living.

But for many Kentuckians, changes in the law and politics regarding same-sex marriage are occurring at breakneck speed. It was only a few years ago that it was considered boldly liberal for a candidate or office holder to say she could accept states allowing same-sex civil unions, but that the federal government should stay out of it — and moreover, that marriage should always be between “a man and a woman.”

It was Bill Clinton, after all, not George W. Bush, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act.

While I appreciate Conway’s heartfelt conviction, I believe Beshear has shown sound judgment in defending the lawsuit on behalf of the people of Kentucky, whatever the outcome.

I don’t think the governor lacks heart. I think he just understands the hardheaded reality of the issue and the consequences of it better than the attorney general does.

Changing parties should be easier

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The beginning of the new year is when we think about making changes, but if you’re thinking about changing your political affiliation, think again. You’re too late.

It’s hard to believe, but the cut-off for changing your party registration for the 2014 primary elections was last year, on Dec. 31, and the Nelson County Clerk’s Office was closed for New Year’s Eve.

I didn’t read anything about it until that day. The press release from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ office was dated Dec. 17, but who’s thinking about politics or elections a few days before Christmas?

Maybe it’s to the advantage of the majority party’s leaders that we don’t think about it. After all, the Democratic Party has a nearly two-to-one advantage in registration in Kentucky, and it’s higher than that in Nelson County. But nearly seven in 10 recent new voters have registered as Republicans, and I suspect this isn’t the only county where that’s happening.

Nationally, the number of people who consider themselves independents (that is, people who choose not to identify with a political party) make up 44 percent of us, according to a Dec. 5-8, 2013, Gallup poll. That figure dwarfs the number who call themselves Democrats (30 percent) as well as those who identify as Republicans (24 percent).

And the number of self-proclaimed independents is almost evenly split when they’re asked which way they tend to lean in voting: 42 percent considered themselves Republican “leaners,” and 44 percent tend to lean more toward the GOP.

Party loyalty isn’t what it used to be, and partisan state officials shouldn’t effectively exclude people from choosing which primary they want to vote in by having the registration deadline so far ahead of the election that almost no one is yet paying any attention.

It’s also wrong to have the voters’ party affiliation deadline occur before they even know who’s going to be on the ballot. Candidates have until Jan. 28 to file for election and can decide then whether they will run as Republicans or Democrats.

State Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said in an email this week that it should be the same for voters; they should have until Jan. 28 to make that decision prior to the May 20 primaries. I would like to see it be a few days later, on Jan. 31, so voters know who the candidates are and can choose a primary based on that knowledge. Or just simplify it and make it April 21, the same day as the regular registration deadline for voting in the May 20 primary.

At least 10 states allow voters to wait until they go to the polls to decide which primary to vote in. I don’t like that idea. It negates the reasons for having parties and creates opportunity for mischief.

If that were the case, I could envision, for example, thousands of Democrats crossing over to vote for Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Republican U.S. Senate primary because they believed he would be easier for their candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, to beat in the general election in November. If Ashley Judd had entered the Senate race as most of us expected, I could see thousands of Republicans crossing over to vote for her because they thought she would be easier to defeat in the fall.

Having the cut-off a few days before the primary also isn’t a good idea, for the same reason.

But having the registration deadline 30 to 90 days out, as almost all other states do, seems about right to me.

No other state makes its voters choose their party affiliation as early as Kentucky does. Connecticut comes closest by having the registration deadline three months before the primary. Kentucky’s is more than four and half months prior to the election. That is unacceptable, and someone should write a bill for this year’s regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly to change it.

Hindering popular participation in democracy and maintaining rigid partisan structures aren’t areas in which Kentucky should want to be first in the nation.

George McGovern, American patriot

The son of a Methodist minister and professional baseball player, he grew up in the country, liked hunting, taught history, stayed married to the same woman for 63 years, worshiped at the same church his whole life, and served his nation for more than half a century.

In World War II, he flew 35 missions in B-24 Liberator bombers and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, yet he is best remembered as an advocate for peace and a critic of military misadventures.

He was an icon of liberals, yet his biographer, Robert Sam Anson, wrote, “To the extent that his vision of life is bounded by certain, immutable values — the importance of family, the dependence on nature, the strength of community, the worth of living things — he is a conservative. He seeks not so much to change America as to restore it, to return it to the earliest days of the Republic, which he believes, naively or not, were fundamentally decent, humane and just.”

George McGovern was a man of contradictions, but most who knew him would probably agree that he, too, was fundamentally decent, humane and just.

McGovern, at 90, is “coming to the end of his life,” his daughter, Ann McGovern, told The Associated Press this week. He has been moved into hospice care near his South Dakota home.

The 1972 Democratic presidential candidate whose campaign theme was “Come home, America,” is going home.

I had the opportunity to meet McGovern, however briefly, on a couple of occasions. Before a lecture at Georgetown College a few years ago, I told him that a mutual acquaintance, the daughter of a former congressman who had succeeded him as our United Nations ambassador on nutrition programs, was attending the seminary near my home and writing for the newspaper I edited. He seemed genuinely pleased and asked about her.

A year or two later, I heard him speak at Berea College, and he seemed confused. Last year, I talked for a moment with him at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort about his new biography of Abraham Lincoln, and he was polite, but tired.

At an age when almost anyone who had contributed as much as he would want a quiet life, he was striving to stay active, to make a difference.

Maybe it was rooted in his Wesleyan religion or prairie populism, but it was a lifetime commitment. It was especially evident in his concern about hunger at home and abroad.

McGovern was a young congressman when President John F. Kennedy tapped him to head the Food for Peace program in 1962. The idea was to use America’s great bounty to alleviate suffering, strengthen alliances and help farmers by keeping grain prices at a level necessary to sustain families and rural communities.

As a Democratic senator from South Dakota, McGovern worked with his Republican neighbor from Kansas, Sen. Bob Dole, to expand the food stamp and school lunch programs. After they had both retired, the two old friends worked together on their International Food for Education and Nutrition Program to provide free school lunches for children in third world countries. For pennies per day per child, they could provide the nutrition students needed to stay in school and have a chance to make life better for themselves and their families. McGovern explained the benefits in his book, “The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time.”

In the election 40 years ago, McGovern was vilified as the candidate for “acid, amnesty and abortion.” But as Bill Kauffman explained in a 2006 article for The American Conservative, it wasn’t fair to the candidate. He was not for legalizing LSD or any street drugs, but was for reducing penalties for marijuana in an era when young people could serve years in prison for possession of a joint. He thought abortion law was a matter better left to the states. And he was not for amnesty while the war in Vietnam was still going on, but when it was over, he said, he would favor amnesty “for those who planned the war and those who refused to participate.”

McGovern saw a nation that was tearing itself apart, and he wanted to heal it. He saw a country mired in conflict and wasting its precious resources, and he wanted to move it forward.

Later McGovern said of his opponent, President Richard Nixon, that he “would not trade places with the man who won.”

After serving Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the UN, McGovern was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It was a fitting tribute for an humble humanitarian and patriot.

George McGovern never became president, but he was an important statesman, and he will be remembered with gratitude for his tireless service to his country and the world.

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