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Bill Straub: McConnell was punched out in the debate with clear-winner McGrath; will it make a difference?

The most provocative, and therefore most interesting, moment in Monday’s televised debate pitting Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell against the Democrat seeking to displace him, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, came when the man who refers to himself as the Grim Reaper threw in the towel.

The moment went by nearly unnoticed.

Over the first 20 minutes of the hour-long confab McConnell suffered what can only be described as a good, old-fashioned whuppin,’ the sort Ali administered to a reeling George Foreman in the eighth round in what became known as the Rumble in the Jungle.

McGrath, who to this point, less than three weeks from Election Day, despite having corralled about all the money in the world, has run a pretty uninspired campaign, offering supporters little hope that she could defeat a 36-year legislative veteran. But she proved relentless regarding a determinant issue this season – the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

McGrath pointed out accurately that the Senate has failed to respond to the health and economic disaster wrought by the bug since adopting a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill known as the CAREs Act that put some money in people’s pockets way back in March. It was soon obvious the package wasn’t sufficient to meet the nation’s long-term needs so the House passed a second recovery measure, totaling $3.4 trillion, which McConnell proceeded to ignore throughout the summer, dismissing it as a “blue state bailout’’ because it included funds for states cratering under the impact of the virus.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

While Mitch dithered, 215,000 Americans succumbed to the disease. McConnell, as is his wont, sought to shift responsibility for this brutal inaction to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, insisting that she refused to bargain over the measure’s price tag, which he and other Republicans considered too high.

That, of course, is a lie. Pelosi had already agreed to reduce the House’s demands and the lower chamber passed an alternative to the $3.4 trillion package earlier this month to the tune of $2.2 trillion to assuage the GOP dead-enders. She had, in fact, spent months saying Democrats would slice their package by $1 trillion if the White House and Senate Republicans would meet her half way. They declined. Now, cornered, the GOP is proposing its own, insufficient, $1.8 trillion measure, and Pelosi is holding out for more.

McConnell, who was never crazy about a second stimulus and was even dealt out of the negotiations, leaving the task to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, stood on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands became sick, perished or went broke. That’s McConnell’s legacy and McGrath called him on it.

“The House put up legislation in May and it’s been sitting on his desk all summer long,” McGrath said. “He took a vacation, didn’t see the urgency to do anything. Meanwhile here in Kentucky, we have a million Kentuckians who have filed for unemployment sometime in the last six months. We have 300,000 Kentuckians who still don’t have health care in the middle of a coronavirus and he’s walking away from negotiations.”

McGrath kept landing punches because, frankly, McConnell had no defense.

Finally, as the debate approached the 18-minute mark, the Grim Reaper came calling for himself.

Directly addressing the moderator, Bill Bryant, of WKYT-TV in Lexington, McConnell said, “There are some other issues going on here, like the new Supreme Court justice, that we might want to cover at some point.”

(COLUMIST’S NOTE: Here I feel compelled to paraphrase the old Howard Cosell call by declaring “Down goes McConnell! Down goes McConnell.” But it was a different fight from the previously cited Rumble in the Jungle (Foreman v. Frazier, 1973) and even I, an old buff of the sweet science, think I’ve taken the boxing angle to its logical conclusion. Thank you. Leave us proceed).

What we have here is the Republican leader of the United States Senate acknowledging he has been pummeled enough over a vital issue, forcing him to beg Bill Bryant to bail him out by changing the subject, which Bryant, naturally and understandably, was eventually going to do anyway.

Just hurry up about it while I still draw breath. The plea was reminiscent of the old “Leonard’s Losers” radio show on football Saturdays throughout the South when the host Leonard Posttoasties, would sign off with the request, “Get me out of here, Percy.”

Obviously, Mitch was standing on quicksand over the whole COVID-19 debate and he found himself exposed, which can’t be a comfortable feeling. During the exchange, he attempted to laugh off the McGrath barrage, giggling like a schoolboy as she issued the indictment. McConnell’s reaction only emphasized that he isn’t taking the issue, and the 215,000 deaths nationwide — more than 1,300 in the Commonwealth — seriously enough. It also showed him being dismissive over the assertions of a strong woman, certainly a questionable strategy during a political campaign these days.

McConnell didn’t fare much better during the rest of the debate, resorting to the old standby that his leadership position results in pennies from heaven for the commonwealth, allowing Kentucky to “punch above its weight,” on the Senate floor, a comment that led McGrath to retort the state is actually being “sucker punched” given the long list of persistent problems that have prevailed over the extent of McConnell’s public life.

He also warned, ominously, that, if elected, McGrath will likely support Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, for crying out loud (gasps of horror), to head a presumed Senate majority. And Schumer isn’t like us, if you catch my drift.

It was not a good performance, so bad one can only conclude McConnell didn’t properly prepare, deciding instead to lean on his old, reliable talking points while remaining secure in the knowledge that his lead remained in the steady double digits.

Even given the opportunity at one point to counter a devastating McGrath blitz, he demurred. The subject was the commonwealth’s opioid crisis. McConnell cited the money he’s funneled into the state to address the problem. Fair enough. But McGrath came back, noting that Mitch receives more financial support from the nation’s pharmaceutical industry than anyone else in Congress and that he has, in fact, been “bought off.”

But even more to the point, she noted that killing the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and nullifying Medicaid expansion, both endorsed by McConnell, would carry grave consequences for addressing the drug problem.

“What Sen. McConnell would do is take that away, take away the Medicaid expansion, where 50 percent of our fellow Kentuckians who are addicted, get their treatment through Medicaid. And he wants to undermine that. I don’t. I want to fix the Affordable Care Act, I want to make health care easier to attain so that people can get the treatment and prevention they need.”

Asked by Bryant for a response, McConnell grimaced, shook his head and said, “No, why don’t we go on to the next topic.”

After being thoroughly dressed down, shown that the emperor wears no clothes, McConnell sought what he hoped would be safer ground.

It remains unlikely, despite this disastrous performance, that McConnell will pay a high price at the polls. Studies indicate debates usually have a negligible impact on the electorate. One need look no further than the 2016 presidential campaign, when Democrat Hillary Clinton easily outpointed Republican Donald J. Trump, who you may now know is the president, to grasp that concept.

But it should open some eyes. McConnell already went into this campaign widely unpopular. Kentucky voters are not for him or even against McGrath, It seems that most are, more than anything else, voting against the Democratic Party, once all powerful in the state, which many folks feel has turned its back on them on issues like abortion and guns.

McConnell benefits because Kentuckians, like scorned suitors, despise the idea of the Democratic Party more than they dislike him. And the nation reels.

A point of privilege for Terry McBrayer

I rise on a point of personal privilege.

Terry McBrayer was a great guy.

A lot of folks snub their noses at people in public life, portraying politician and officials as possessing feelings of superiority and displaying hubris.

Those folks never met Terry McBrayer, who died Sunday at the age of 83. Nobody, be they Democrat or Republican, country or city, disliked the Lexington-based lawyer from Greenup County who had a hand in just about all of the important commissions and agencies in Kentucky of the past many decades.

If you showed up at a function in a bad mood anywhere in the Commonwealth sure it was going to be a boring and terrible event, the world suddenly brightened when you learned McBrayer was in attendance. Sure you could talk politics, but the conversation usually turned to other things, hunting, fishing, travelling. He made it fun to be around.

He remained bright over the past few years battling the cancer that sadly took his life. It’s a cliché, I know, but they don’t make ‘em like Terry McBrayer anymore. It’s a sadder world for his loss.

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One Comment

  1. J Blanton says:

    I love this guy! He points out over and over in his columns that the Emperor and his Lackey, Root and Branch Mitch, have no clothes on. Then he goes on to point out that a majority of the citizens in the Commonwealth don’t seem to mind nudity. Keep on firing those bullets, Bill. One of these days you will bring down one of these shysters.

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