Kentucky’s Democratic Senate candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, had an awkward interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal yesterday. The newspaper’s editorial board asked her three times if she’d voted for Barack Obama, and she declined to answer each time. Grimes has been trying mightily to put distance between herself and President Obama, whose popularity in Kentucky is about on par with leprosy, but to refuse to say you voted for the guy when you quite obviously did is silly.
Unfortunately for Grimes, her clunky dodge of the issue fits perfectly into the GOP-friendly narrative that the midterms are a referendum on Obama. And because the media love to freak out over campaign “optics,” Grimes’ stumbling answer has become a huge story. It’s so big, in fact, that NBC’s Chuck Todd went on “Morning Joe” (of course) and said that Grimes has "disqualified herself" as a candidate for Senate.
“Kentuckians expect her to cast a tough vote on anything?” Todd asked. “Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything? You want to be a U.S. senator?”
Let’s grapple with this notion that Grimes’ stumbling answer to this question is “disqualifying.” Sure, Grimes’ answer was awkward, but at the end of the day it doesn't have much to do with policy issues or anything that might actually affect Kentucky residents. And what makes Grimes’ answer disqualifying when the midterm landscape is absolutely littered with candidates who refuse to answer simple questions and say absolutely ridiculous things on matters of actual importance?
Case in point: Grimes’ opponent Mitch McConnell. For months now – months – McConnell has been staking out contradictory and untenable positions on healthcare in Kentucky as he tries to balance his opposition to the Affordable Care Act with the fact that his state has benefited hugely from the law. He wants to repeal Obamacare, but also seems to think that Kynect, Kentucky’s popular and effective healthcare exchange (which can exist only because of subsidies offered through the ACA), will survive once the law is gone.
Just last week he sat down with the editorial board of the Cincinnati Enquirer and said this: "Kentucky’s exchange was paid for with federal money. You can have an exchange if you want to with or without Obamacare." That’s complete garbage. With no Obamacare and no tax credits, there’s nothing to guarantee that coverage offered through a state exchange would be adequate or even affordable. Kentucky’s governor said flat-out that “if Obamacare is repealed, there's not going to be any Kynect.” McConnell knows his position is nonsense. He’s deliberately misleading the people whose healthcare he wants to take away. Why is that not disqualifying?
McConnell also told the Enquirer that healthcare reform “is about reducing the number of uninsured,” and the Affordable Care Act “will not do that very effectively.” The uninsured rate nationally has plummeted during the first year of the ACA. Among all states, Kentucky saw the second-largest drop in its uninsured rate year-to-year. So McConnell is lying about the law’s effectiveness in his own state. Is that disqualifying?
Why isn’t it disqualifying when McConnell can’t answer the simple question of whether human activity contributes to climate change and instead dodges the issue entirely by saying “I’m not a scientist”? If we’re operating under the rule that Kentuckians expect their senators to answer tough questions or face disqualification, well then ducking one of the most significant issues facing the world seems relevant.
Thom Tillis wants to seal the border to keep Ebola out of the country. Is that disqualifying? Or how about Scott Brown warning about ISIS sneaking into the U.S. through Mexico? What about Joni Ernst’s belief that the U.N. is going to force American farmers off their land? Or her support for a bill to nullify Obamacare and arrest the bureaucrats who implement it? Or her certainty that the U.S. found WMDs in Iraq?
Part of the reason that McConnell and others get away with their dissembling on the Affordable Care Act is that Democrats don’t make enough of an effort to hit them on it. And the reason Grimes’ bad answer to whether she voted for Obama is such a big deal now is because Republicans have been flogging away incessantly at the president as part of their midterm strategy. But to call Grimes’ answer “disqualifying” when really all it amounts to is a moment of bad optics is absurd, particularly when you stack it against the mountain of policy incoherence upon which her opponent sits.