Issue May 27, 2009

Relief pitch

Poor Jim Bunning. He looks old these days. And tired.

A recent news-Googling indicates that the former major league pitcher is under a lot of pressure. He faces a tough primary challenger or five, has been the most (only?) outspoken critic of his party’s misguided leadership, says hilarious and stupid things weekly — including a public apology to Jesus for hurling the word “goddamn” at a reporter — has a terrible memory and apparently tells little lies about his baseball past, skipped the Derby, threatened to sue his party for not supporting his re-election, received an award recently for his uncompromising opposition to taxes, and has lost the confidence of his party after two close elections and everything mentioned heretofore.

If you think this is bad for Bunning and Republicans who are interested in appealing to more than 3 percent of the voting public, you’re right. But it’s worse for Kentucky, and Bunning’s continued presence — both as a senator and candidate — can do nothing but harm.

Bunning should announce his retirement at once.

The senator makes it easy for the rest of the country to stereotype Kentucky as a swamp of backwardness and deep cultural malaise, and this pulls attention from important issues, like figuring out how to pay for changes in our public education system so our schools stop churning out people who would vote for Jim Bunning.

Matt Welch, editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the website True/Slant, posted a piece May 25 entitled “What If a U.S. Senator Had Lost All His Marbles, But People Were Too Shy To Come Right Out and Say It?” In it, Welch cites the posturing and avoidance from people like state Sen. David Williams, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn and Bunning himself when it comes to the top-of-mind issue: Is Jim Bunning an insane person?

Welch also wonders whether Bunning has been this crazy all along, citing his weird attacks against Democrat Dan Mongiardo in the 2004 Senate race and his paranoia about being ambushed by “little green doctors” in public.

But it doesn’t matter now whether Bunning is crazy, sick or just suffering the natural effects of his age (77). What matters is that he does what’s best for Kentucky and steps aside.

Most Democrats will not agree with this. They want an easy target next year, and Bunning is nothing if not that. But Bunning’s presence in another campaign — a charade in its own right — also guarantees that his asinine commentary and regressive politics will stick around another 15 months or so, consuming the front pages of newspapers and lead stories of nightly broadcasts. Meanwhile, Kentuckians with heads on their shoulders can only weep at missing another chance to show the nation we are not half-literate rednecks.

If Bunning were to resign, Democrats would have a sparkling new opportunity to replace the low-rent character politicking that tends to impede progress with some substantive messaging. Democrats (at this point, either Attorney General Jack Conway or Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo) could elevate the discourse with a strong, issue-based campaign against any of the Republicans lining up against Bunning, including Secretary of State Trey Grayson, Rand Paul (son of Ron) and David Williams. I’m sure Grayson is capable of a thoughtful campaign, and Paul seems maybe even a little too serious of a guy. Williams, however, can certainly be counted upon to use every speck of innuendo available to tarnish his opponent — a stark contrast to a Democrat’s issues campaign.

And who doesn’t like a young guy helping out some struggling, drooling old person? Let’s usher Bunning out with the dignity he hasn’t offered us. If the Dems can find it in themselves to help this along, they’ll be heroic — they helped that poor old man cross the street and didn’t even make a joke about his Velcro shoes.

Democrats have complained about Rovian politics since George W. Bush stopped drinking and got a little ambitious. Yet given the opportunity, most Dems dive right into the swine pool. What if Kentucky were the place to reverse that trend?

Bunning makes Republicans look bad, and right now Republicans seem as out of touch as ever. His shenanigans — while entertaining to every good American who enjoys spending a nice Sunday afternoon watching cars crash — are making Kentucky the butt of another bad joke.