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Al Cross: This isn’t prime time for the ‘Entertainment Wing’ of the GOP

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s annual public-affairs dinner is usually a chance for the governor and legislative leaders to have a few laughs at each other’s expense before the election filing deadline passes and the General Assembly gets serious.

This year’s soiree was bigger than ever – 1,800 people, including 65 percent of the legislature, in Lexington’s new, cavernous convention center – but it was different, for two reasons.

First, it was about 40 days late, due to the pandemic, so it came at legislative crunch time. “There is no fun left in me,” said House Speaker David Osborne, openly dreading the rest of March. But not as much as the people of Ukraine.

“It’s hard to come in and be funny this year,” said Senate Democratic Leader Morgan McGarvey, calling for “prayers for the Ukrainian people” and continued opposition “to Putin’s unprovoked war.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

Such comments won some of the strongest applause at the dinner, showing that the Russian dictator’s challenge to democracies and their world order has given Americans something to agree on – and since he has nuclear weapons, something to get serious about.

We’ve needed to get serious for some time, about a lot of things: the coronavirus, money in politics, the sort of people we elect to office, and so on. Instead, we have been too busy being entertained.

A little entertainment is useful in public affairs, but the political and media environment that has evolved in the last 40 years is driven by entertainment values, primarily those of television, as Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985.

The Republican Party has been the primary victim of this trend, giving us a president who gained fame and undeserved credibility as a TV star and outsourcing its primary message functions to broadcast opinionators. This has created what some people properly disparage as the Entertainment Wing of the GOP, which seems more interested in views, clicks and money than meaningful contributions to the public good.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky are leading members of the party’s Entertainment Wing, and of its libertarian wing and its far-out wing. They have challenged science and scientists during the pandemic, leading their constituents into beliefs that put them more at risk; have scant legislative accomplishments; are often counted in small minorities of roll-call votes.

One recent example: Massie was one of three House members who voted against a resolution to support Ukraine. He refused reporters’ requests for interviews, resorting to his usual mode of communication, his Twitter feed, and his frequently used approach of making the perfect the enemy of the good. In crises like this one, there are no perfect solutions.

The other members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation are members of what could be called the Serious Wing. Mitch McConnell leads Senate Republicans. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, the only Democrat, chairs the House Budget Committee. Rep. Brett Guthrie of Bowling Green has been a voice of reason and care in the pandemic. Rep. Hal Rogers has done more for his Fifth District than just about any member has done for a district. Rep. James Comer of Tompkinsville (and now Frankfort) co-authored a bill, now on Biden’s desk, to save and reform the Postal Service, probably the only major bipartisan piece of non-budget legislation Congress will pass this year.

Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington, whose seat the legislature secured by moving Franklin County into Comer’s district, has been a member of the Serious Wing. He’s the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee’s national-security subcommittee and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In those roles he has made himself one of the most vocal critics of Biden on Ukraine, blaming administration policies for the Russian invasion.

Barr has said sanctions should have come before the invasion; the administration’s view was that sanctions would have given Putin another excuse to invade. More recently, he has argued that Biden’s abandonment of possible sanctions of a new Russian gas pipeline to Germany “was a signal to Moscow that Ukraine was fair game.” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told him at a hearing that Biden wanted to leave that call up to Germany.

Before Biden cut off Russian energy imports to the U.S., Barr called for that move, filed a bill to close the energy loophole in the sanctions on Russian banks, and called for more drones, Stinger missiles and other anti-aircraft weapons for “the Ukraine” in lieu of a no-fly zone.

Someone needs to tell Barr that “the Ukraine” is what Russians say to imply that it’s not really a nation. That’s the sort of mistake you make when get too excited about making political potshots. They’re the main schtick of the Entertainment Wing, and that’s not what we need.

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  1. J says:

    Al Cross continues to distinguish himself as the most insightful political analyst in Kentucky. He’s absolutely correct about the “Entertainment Wing” which now dominates the Republican Party.

    With this GOP, there are no policy goals, except to “own” anybody who’s not one of them, and oppose any idea that doesn’t come from the Entertainment Wing.

  2. Don Calitri says:

    Excellent comments Mr. Cross. You have hit the nail on the head. Still understand Mr. Barr. Rather than lift up our country he has began a road down negativity. I believe it began when he invited Trump to Kentucky. He is turning off his positive voters. Someone needs to remind him that Congress has a 20% approval rating with 75 % approving of Term Limits.

  3. Don Calitri says:

    Don’t understand Mr. Barr’s negativity. Someone needs to remind him that Congress has a 20% approval rating and 75% want term limits.

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