It’s probably not wise to question Laura Kelly’s political acumen.
The Kansas governor has won statewide election — twice! — as a Democrat in a heavily Republican state. I would argue that’s because we’re actually a lot more moderate than our conservative reputation suggests, but the numbers don’t lie: There are a lot more registered Republicans than Democrats in the Sunflower State.
Kelly won both her gubernatorial elections while running uphill. That’s impressive.
For that reason, the national political press occasionally reaches out, looking for advice to other Democrats who want to win in red states.
In November, for example, Politico suggested that Kelly “might have an answer” to Democrats’ problems with rural voters. How can they win — or, at least, lose by smaller margins — in overwhelmingly conservative farm communities?
“Basically, follow my playbook,” she said.
This week it was the New York Times, looking to Kelly and a few other Democratic governors for their advice to President Joe Biden, who is off to a shaky start in his re-election campaign, probably against his predecessor Donald Trump.
Kelly’s advice: Ignore the elephant in the room.“If I were in Biden’s shoes, I would not talk about Trump,” she said. “I would let other people talk about Trump.”
That’s terrible advice.
Why? Because Donald Trump isn’t just another candidate, and Biden can’t float above the fray. The former president is a threat to American democracy — we all saw what happened on January 6 — and it seems rather obvious to most observers that his second term will be worse than the first.
Trump is the issue in 2024.
Trump has vowed to unleash the Justice Department on his enemies, should he retake office. He has promised another crackdown on migrants in crudely racist terms, saying they are “poisoning the blood of our country.” He has suggested that Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be executed for disloyalty. He wants to prosecute MSNBC for its unflattering coverage of him. “It’s the world’s biggest political contribution to the Radical Left Democrats who, by the way, are destroying our Country,” the former president recently wrote online about MSNBC. “Our so-called ‘government’ should come down hard on them and make them pay for their illegal political activity.”
That would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment. Flatly unconstitutional.
But the Constitution has never really been Donald Trump’s strong suit. It gets in the way of the stuff he wants to do. Remember last year when he said America should terminate “all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” in order to re-install his royal self in the White House?
Folks, he wasn’t joking.
There is no taking the higher road on this stuff, no dancing around the central issue of the campaign. Either Donald Trump loses — and American democracy, imperfect as it is, lives to fight another day — or he wins, and everything gets really, really bad from there.
Biden simply can’t pretend otherwise. And, despite Kelly’s advice, he can’t simply let his surrogates do the dirty work of making the case against Trump. He’s the president. The buck stops with him.
Kelly has some good advice
Again, maybe take this assessment with a grain of salt. Laura Kelly has won two more statewide elections than I ever will. She’s certainly smarter than I am about political strategy.
And to be fair, Kelly did offer Biden another piece of advice that’s really good: He should show up at factory openings — many of which were made possible by his Inflation Reduction Act — to show the American people what he’s accomplished for him. “I would spend a lot of time doing those just because they’re relatively easy and they are energizing,” she told the Times.
That’s right. Biden can’t just tell America that Trump is bad. He’s got to make the case for why it would be good to give him another term.
But he still has to make the “Trump is bad” case. There’s no getting around it. Kelly — this time, at least — is wrong.
Joel Mathis is a regular opinion correspondent for The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle. He lives in Lawrence with his wife and son. Formerly a writer and editor at Kansas newspapers, he served nine years as a syndicated columnist.