One of my most awkward moments in my political career came near its end.
Perched in the front row of the balcony in the chambers of the Kentucky House of Representatives, I was participating in an annual rite of passage for Frankfort: the 2011 State of the Commonwealth Address. The man at the microphone, Governor Steve Beshear, had appointed me to his Cabinet several months after I had abandoned my own 2007 bid for the Mansion and threw my support to him. Leaving the race was agony, but the endorsement was easy: He was a good and decent man; and we shared similar values and positions on most issues. One exception: After cutting my political teeth as a young aide to Al Gore, climate change remediation was a personal passion; and Beshear’s campaign rhetoric hewed closer to the traditional pro-coal boosterism of our black gold-rich state.
Midway through the speech, the Governor turned to my sore spot. Jabbing his forefinger in the air, he twice yelled four words aimed squarely at the Obama Administration’s clean air regulators: “Get off our backs!”
The crowd erupted in a rare bipartisan display usually reserved only for military heroes. Like the rest of those in attendance, my fellow Cabinet members stood to their feet and clapped uproariously.
Realizing I could be captured by the TV cameras airing to a statewide audience, I panicked: If I didn’t stand, I would be seen as disloyal and perhaps even justify a few unsavory press tweets. If I cheered, I’d not only be intellectually dishonest; I might upset some friends watching from home. So this future crisis manager came up with an awkward solution: I stood up, and pretended to look at my phone.
And, of course, like much of my political career, no one was paying attention.
One of the more fascinating revelations in Steve Beshear’s just-released new autobiography, People Over Politics, was that the Governor also was internally contradicted at that moment, and came to regret it:
Because it was too simplistic a message. Because it reduced a complex issue into a four-word, black-and-white sound bite. Because it settled on a singular explanation for coal’s decline at the expense of all others. And because it helped further the deceptive message to the Eastern and Western Kentucky coalfields that the best way to build a vibrant future was to simply cling to the past.
People Over Politics contains all of the usual traits of standard political autobiography: Litanies of policy accomplishments to craft the first draft of history. Shout-outs to mentors, staffers, and family that propelled him on his path. Shade thrown at rivals and adversaries (the nectar of press attention and book sales.)
But what’s most remarkable about People Over Politics is what’s atypical of the genre…and frankly, what’s atypical of politics circa 2017: Self-criticism. Nuance. Humility. As the country hurdles breathlessly through scandal, tweetstorms and hyperbolic shouting, Steve Beshear and his approach to government emerge as a sort of Bizarro Trumpism — and not simply as a quaint nostalgic reminder of a halcyon bygone era, but rather as a potential elixir for today’s toxicity.
Steve Beshear tried something nearly impossible in today’s polarized and paralyzed politics: Securing center-left progress in a bright red state. Beshear inherited a dispirited body politic, made cynical by the ethical scandals of prior administrations. Further, just a few months into his first term, the Governor’s expansive campaign promises were undermined profoundly by the worst national economic crisis since the Great Depression. For most of his time in office, Beshear continually was forced to thread the tiniest needle: Creating jobs and maintaining safety net services with scarce resources, while protecting progressive values in a Bible Belt climate.
It was the latter social-issue struggle that helped precipitate a premature undoing to Beshear’s early political career. The young Attorney General’s 1980 opinion that prohibited courthouse postings of the Ten Commandments haunted him in future unsuccessful bids for Governor and the U.S. Senate. Some of the more interesting sections of his book relate to how the late-20th century religious wars informed the older and wiser Beshear on the social hot buttons of the new millennium. While at the time, many liberals chastised the Governor for appealing a federal judge’s marriage equality ruling, and for signing off initially on tax incentives for a Noah’s Ark theme park, the reader will catch a rare behind-the-curtains glimpse of how the pro-LGBT, pro-science Beshear tried to subtly square the policy circle to protect progressive interests while retaining political capital.
Ultimately, of course, Steve Beshear used that political capital for his most progressive and consequential accomplishment, in the process making him a national hero for Democrats. It is hard to over-estimate the political risks the Governor assumed by embracing the Affordable Care Act. There have been few modern politicians less popular in the Commonwealth than the 44th President, and his local popularity was at its nadir during the rollout of Obamacare. Yet, in the most challenging moment of his Administration, Beshear went all-in, expanding Medicaid and opening up the South’s only state-based exchange. He rolled out the initiative with a coordinated and targeted communications strategy, articulating the benefits in a manner that transcended the deep political divide. For those who could not accept any program associated with the President, he responded simply and clearly: “Get over it.” Whatever your view of the action’s substance, it’s hard to deny that Beshear’s signature moment was a case study of putting people over politics.
It’s only been a few years since Steve Beshear left the state capital, but they’ve been some of the most tumultuous in our nation’s political history. The political figure tapped to deliver the Democrats’ response to our new President’s first State of the Union address is revealed in People Over Politics to be the ultimate anti-Trump: a careful deliberator, operating in gray areas of our black and white political system, tempered by genuine humility. Steve Beshear won’t be running for office again. But any of the large and growing cavalry looking to pursue the White House in 2020, and once again recapture the great swath of red states in the center of our nation, would be wise to follow his example.