By: Scott Jennings
This article first appeared in the February 11, 2015 edition of the Courier-Journal.
The death of former U.S. Senator Wendell Ford brought back some memories for this political hack, and offered a chance for all of us to reflect on Kentucky’s continuing history of sending U.S. Senators to Washington with rarely-equaled legislative skill.
My grandfather, Morton Jennings, who served as an elected magistrate in Hopkins County for many years, was a strong Ford man and drug me along to a number of campaign events featuring Ford, former Congressman Carroll Hubbard, and the other Democratic luminaries who controlled Western Kentucky politics. I recall watching these guys thunder from podiums and slap the backs of Kentuckians, swelling with pride that they knew my grandfather and his family by name.
Morton was a partisan in the best sense of the word – he loved and believed in his party, and in the state and national leaders who ran it. If Wendell Ford said something, my grandfather believed you could take it to the bank. I’ve long admired Morton’s political intensity and loyalty, and it taught this conservative that there’s no vice in anyone with any political stripe being an honest and passionate combatant in the arena.
Ford certainly earned his place in Kentucky political lore, rising through the years, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, to shape “the history of the commonwealth in ways few others had before him.” McConnell’s gracious statement captured the sense of honor and history that more political players should feel when talking about their foes. It is OK to praise someone for being engaged in the debate, for being consequential, and for being a good leader.
Ford’s death prompted Kentucky Educational Television to re-run a 1999 documentary pointing out a hallmark of Ford’s career – that he was known for keeping his campaign promises, even instructing his staff to research his speeches to ensure he hadn’t forgotten one. It’s something for which every politician hopes to be remembered.
University of Kentucky professor Al Cross pointed out that “Ford lived just long enough to see McConnell become Senate majority leader.” Ford’s death came at a time that McConnell was being lauded by people in both parties for keeping his own campaign promise to get the Senate working again, ensuring that he will also be remembered as strong leader known for keeping his word.
During his 2014 campaign, McConnell built his argument for reelection on the foundation that he had the unique ability to get the Senate working again. There was “a growing lack of confidence,” McConnell argued, “in the Senate’s ability to mediate the tensions and disputes we have always had in the United States.” This crisis of confidence was largely caused by former Majority Leader Harry Reid, who cut off all debate and votes, robbing senators in both parties of the chance to offer up their ideas to solve the nation’s problems. Most U.S. Senate campaigns feature candidates promising to vote one way or another on big issues. How could any of them keep their promises if there are no votes to cast?
Part of McConnell’s plan was to allow an open amendment process and actually have U.S. Senators do what people think they do—debate stuff and then vote on it. His opponent, Alison Grimes, argued that McConnell, who was not in charge of the Senate at the time, was the person grinding things to a halt. She claimed that if McConnell were allowed to lead the Senate, gridlock would reign.
Add that to the long list of things Grimes was wrong about last year. On January 22, just a few days into McConnell’s tenure as Majority Leader, the Senate held its 15th roll call vote, one more than it held during the entire year of 2014.
Just as McConnell promised, the Senate is in fact working once more. Even his Democratic colleagues are singing his praises.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, what we’ve seen over the last several weeks is the Senate I remember, the Senate I was elected to, the Senate – whether it was active debate, and amendments – for some members it is a new experience,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin.
Freshman Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana complimented McConnell’s leadership as well, telling WHAS-TV’s Joe Arnold: “I think that McConnell is smart to allow us to do this, and is a sign of good leadership to in effect say ‘Look, you are here to legislate, to work, to get things done and I’m going to step out of the way and give you that chance,’ and I appreciate that.”
Cynicism is the word of the day in American politics. Congressional approval ratings, we are routinely told, are at all-time lows. But in McConnell’s early days as Senate Majority Leader, we are again learning that our Commonwealth has a penchant for sending promise keepers to lead in Washington D.C., people with the ability to reverse the rising trend of political cynicism and actually make government work.
And that is something I am sure Morton Jennings, the partisan Democrat, would say is a good thing for his old Kentucky home.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.