Al Cross: Jack Conway And Rand Paul Both Have Ad Nauseam.
By Al Cross
Jack Conway may have permanently sullied his reputation and even endangered his political future by running that awful television commercial implicitly questioning Rand Paul's religious faith. But Paul's reaction to the ad should make voters in the U.S. Senate race more wary of him, too.
Paul's first response ad asked, “What kind of shameful politician would stoop this low, to bear false witness against another man just to win an election?” Actually, nothing in Conway's spot appears to be false, and if anyone bore false witness last week, it was Paul.
In last Sunday's debate, amid some of the most sustained indignation ever seen on Kentucky political TV, Paul repeatedly said Conway “makes up stuff” about what Paul did at Baylor University. Later in the week, he started issuing broad denials, saying “None of what's been reported ever happened.”
Specifically, though, Paul has never denied belonging to a student group “that called the Holy Bible a hoax, that was banned for mocking Christianity,” as Conway's ad said. Two former group members confirmed that for The Courier-Journal, one saying Paul “flourished in … blasphemy.”
As for the best-known charge in the ad, that Paul tied up a woman and made her “bow down before a false idol” called Aqua Buddha: Paul for weeks refused to address the charge, then said last week that he couldn't recall the incident. Gee, those college days can sure get hazy, can't they?
In the debate, Paul said Conway's charge was based on “an anonymous source,” with information Conway “read on a blog.” In fact, The Washington Post and GQ magazine have both reported on interviews with the woman, saying she didn't want to be identified because she is a clinical psychologist.
The woman called the episode a friendly prank and said she went along with it, which makes you wonder why Paul, 47, isn't willing to admit that he did some crazy things when he was in college. Many if not most of us baby boomers did, so voters seem willing, and should be willing, to give a pass to college activities that were soon abandoned.
Perhaps Paul thinks his would-be constituents have stricter standards when it comes to matters of religion, and perhaps they do. Kentucky is one of the more religious states, and has many residents whose votes are influenced or even determined by their faith and values.
It is those voters Conway was chasing with his ad: registered Democrats, probably in rural areas, who have been voting Republican because of social issues. I received reports from rural clergy early last week that the ad was driving people away from Paul, but that was before voters had had time to absorb his first response ad, and even some Democrats said Conway's spot went over the line, so the betting here is that the ad will turn out to be a strategic blunder.
Changing electoral focus
Still, at least for a week, Conway's commercial achieved its tactical objective: It changed the dominant narrative of the race, from a referendum on Washington and President Obama to a referendum on Rand Paul.
Paul has given Conway plenty of material for such a referendum, and Conway laid out most of it in the debate, saying Paul “has had to backtrack” from his opposition to the public-accommodations section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and federal funding for the main anti-drug program in Eastern Kentucky; from his ignorant statement that coal-mine safety should be locally regulated; from his general support for a national sales tax to replace federal income taxes; and from his repeated suggestion that the financial problem facing Medicare could be solved with a $2,000 deductible.
“I've not changed any of my positions,” Paul said. He must have an unusual definition of “change” and/or “position.”
Paul is a libertarian whose philosophy has led him to take positions that are strong and principled but outside the political mainstream. At a panel discussion I moderated a month ago, Republican columnist John David Dyche observed that Paul is strong on concepts, but less so when it comes to ideas that put concepts into practice. So, despite his denials, Paul has in fact backtracked, if not outright changed his positions.
Nevertheless, the early-September prediction of retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, that Paul will win “in spite of himself,” is likely to come true. Voters are frustrated with the economy and angry at Washington, and Paul has clear, firm concepts about spending and the size and role of government.
Even some Paul supporters consider him at least a bit strange, but in the current environment that's not all bad for him. Voters may think that electing an unusual senator will change what's usual in Washington. But he needs to shoot straighter with them.
An implausible denial
And so does Conway. He wasn't being straight when he repeatedly denied that the ad wasn't about Paul's faith. That was its clear, if unstated, message.
While the ad contained information that some voters consider relevant, candidates for the Senate should remember and follow the spirit of the Constitution's strongly stated rule that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Conway's decision to run the ad may not have been his own. The fact that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is still spending money on TV ads in Kentucky, when it has several incumbents in trouble, suggests that it's still playing here because Conway is delivering a message the DSCC thinks will work.
But the buck stops with Conway, and Democrats had better hope he hasn't risked his re-election as attorney general next year or opened a Pandora's box. Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson is running for lieutenant governor with Gov. Steve Beshear. Abramson is Jewish. There are ways to remind voters of that, ways more skillful than Conway adopted. Let's hope his ad is the end of such stuff.
Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His e-mail address is email@example.com. His views are his own, not those of the University of Kentucky.
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