, Corbin, KY


June 9, 2014

No Lincoln or Douglas in this debate

CORBIN — FRANKFORT — Remember the famous slap-down in the 1988 vice presidential debate when Republican Dan Quayle compared his youth and limited government experience to those of John Kennedy’s when Kennedy ran for president?

His Democratic opponent, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, acidly replied: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

I was born nearly 100 years after the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. So other than what I’ve read about them, I didn’t know either of them and neither was my friend.

But after listening to the dismal and often downright silly campaign rhetoric between Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, I can confidently say neither is an Abraham Lincoln or a Stephen Douglas. Regardless of format, should the two actually end up in a face-to-face debate, we won’t hear the intellectual or rhetorical elegance of Lincoln and Douglas and they won’t seriously address critical national issues.

Can you imagine either McConnell or Grimes speaking to voters in such a direct way on an important question the way Lincoln so thoroughly described his position on slavery in one of those 1858 encounters?

“Through all, I have neither assailed, nor wrestled with any part of the constitution. The legal right of the Southern people to reclaim their fugitives I have constantly admitted. The legal right of Congress to interfere with their institution in the states, I have constantly denied. In resisting the spread of slavery into new territory, and with that, what appears to me to be a tendency to subvert the first principle of free government itself, my whole effort has consisted. To the best of my judgment I have labored for, and not against the Union. As I have not felt, so I have not expressed any harsh sentiment towards our Southern brethren. I have constantly declared, as I really believed, the only difference between them and us, is the difference of circumstances.”

No, you really can’t imagine that, can you?

Grimes and McConnell won’t debate big ideas or great issues. They will argue over which loves coal the most, though coal employs about 1 percent of the Kentucky workforce and appears headed toward a fate similar to that of the tobacco industry, an industry Kentucky politicians defended long after it was dead. (Coal isn’t dead but its supremacy is.)

They may refrain from name-calling if they have to do it while standing within a few feet of the other, but then again, we may hear Senator Gridlock or maybe even Empty Dress. (Thankfully, I doubt we’ll hear the inelegant term used by Speaker Greg Stumbo and echoed by Senate President Robert Stivers about the President of the United States.) We’ll hear the word liberal and the word obstructionist. We’ll hear the name “Obama” a lot. We won’t hear many specifics on how to reduce the federal debt; keep 420,000 Kentuckians from losing health coverage if we repeal Obamacare; or how a freshman senator all by herself will guarantee there are no highway tolls in Kentucky.

I was on a media panel last week and the moderator asked where the campaign is headed, to which I answered, “Downhill.” But it’s such a long time until November that we likely have a long way to go before we hit bottom. Kentuckians deserve better but they won’t get it and probably won’t even demand it.

I hope Grimes and McConnell agree to debates. I’m just not very optimistic we’ll be much enlightened if they do. I am certain they won’t resemble those between Lincoln and Douglas.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at

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