Outrage and animosity are the driving forces behind contemporary politics. This is especially true on the federal level, where political victories are scored neither by the number of citizens whose lives are improved nor by the number of freedoms protected, but by the vanquishment of the opposition. Sure, millions of people are affected by the fallout from this winner-take-all tug of war, but oh well. In this environment, reasoned compromise is unwisely considered weakness. Elections are won when constituents see their preferred politicians gloating over rivals who are face down in the mud, humiliated.
Across the nation, state-level politics increasingly feel like junior-varsity versions of the games in Washington, D.C. In Kentucky, we are once again immersed in the nastiness of our seemingly endless pension-reform crisis.
On one side are public employees and their unions who for years sat idly by as Democrats hemmed and hawed about the worsening pension problem, only to explode with rage once a Republican-led General Assembly actually did something about it. The lawmakers’ solution was imperfect, we acknowledge, and the dubious methods used to ram through the controversial changes were constitutionally questionable, which is why the legislation is now mired in the courts. Nevertheless, even those who disagree with the contents of the GOP’s reform package are hard-pressed to deny that serious attention was given to pension reform only after Republicans took over Frankfort.
On the other side is onion-skinned Gov. Matt Bevin, the face of the GOP pension-reform effort who, for some reason, seems to relish antagonizing Kentucky’s public employees. Bevin is not shy about dishing out barbs and insults, but when similar attacks are directed at him, he tends to pout and spout off again, apparently unconcerned about choosing words that some consider unbecoming of a person in his position.
Another example came Tuesday, when, in an interview with radio host Brian Thomas of WKRC in Cincinnati, Bevin said failing to save the pension system risks the retirement security of hundreds of thousands of people. OK, so far so good. But then came this: “And yet I am being fought in some instances by the very people we are trying to save. It’s like saving a drowning victim, Brian. They are fighting you, fighting you, pulling you under. You just need to knock them out and drag them to shore. It’s for their own good.”
Two things are simultaneously true about Bevin’s statement. First, the point he was trying to make – that sometimes it is difficult to convince people that something they oppose is actually for their betterment in the long run – is obvious. Second, he picked an eye-rollingly dumb way to say it.
Let’s be frank – Bevin is a smart guy whose intelligence is consistently betrayed by immaturity in the face of criticism. (He was back at it Wednesday, in fact, railing against the “petty people” and “small minds” who he perceives to be pension-reform obstructionists). Look, few people enjoy having their positions assailed, but that’s in the job description of an elected official. Too often, Bevin responds to people and ideas he doesn’t like by unleashing weird tantrums, complete with frantic exaggerations and desperate claims that do little to strengthen his own positions but instead steel the resolve of those he is arguing with.
Republicans who wonder why public employees fight the party’s pension efforts so stoutly should look first at Bevin’s petulance. Even after years of inert Democratic pension governance, there’s little chance of winning hearts and minds when the head of the state GOP characterizes thousands of affected workers as petty people who should be beaten and dragged around. Forgive the trite expression, but a little respect goes a long way.
That said, we also urge Kentucky’s teachers and other public workers to step back and take stock of where we are today versus where we stood when Democrats were essentially leaving the pension crisis to fester. We have no problem with state workers expressing disagreement with aspects of the pension-reform package, but the fact that we have a pension-reform package at all is significant. Yes, work remains to find a resolution that is satisfactory for all involved, but there has at least been movement, which is more than could be said when Democrats controlled Frankfort.
Ultimately, the pension situation in Kentucky illustrates the near impossibility of making meaningful, constructive progress when negotiations are couched in ugly divisiveness and blind partisanship. Instead of aping unseemly D.C.-style politics, perhaps it is time for Kentucky to set an example for the rest of the country by taking a deep breath and returning to the table with open minds and open ears – and with gums that flap a little less furiously.