Matt Bevin’s Moderate Side

by Jonathan Strong
He’s against McConnell and against bomb-throwing.

Let’s put it this way: It’s not the kind of rhetoric you’d expect to hear from an insurgent primary candidate running to Mitch McConnell’s right.

“We have way too much partisanship in Washington,” Matt Bevin told a Republican audience in Hardin County, Ky., on Monday. “And it shouldn’t be a function of, you know, the Democrats are this, therefore the Republicans have to be opposed to it or vice versa. It’s got to be what’s in the best interest of this country. Shutting down the government is ridiculous.”

He went on: “This idea of us being bomb throwers, being zealots who, ‘It’s my way or the highway’ — that’s craziness. Government is about negotiation, government is about compromise.”

In Bevin’s retelling, the secret key to Ronald Reagan’s success as president was bipartisanship: “The reason things got done was because Ronald Reagan, as staunch conservative on one end, and Tip O’Neill, as staunch liberal on the other end, remembered ultimately at the end of the day that they were there not to serve their party but they were there to serve the people. And that’s something that we are missing.” (In a later interview, Kentucky businessman Bevin even called arch-liberal O’Neill “statesmanlike.”)

These comments from Bevin appear on a video provided to National Review Online by Bevin’s political opponents, which you can watch below.

In the closing seconds of the video, Bevin was just arriving at an important caveat. Compromise is crucial, he said, but not compromise of “one’s principles and not [on] things that are in the wrong direction for this country.” With that, the video cuts off.

“What I’ve said is not to confuse compromise for capitulation — for compromising one’s principles,” Bevin told me in a 25-minute interview about his remarks. “Mitch McConnell is the messenger of capitulation, which he then turns around and tries to sell to us as having been a compromise. Very big difference.”

During his Hardin County appearance, Bevin was asked: Didn’t Republicans play into Democrats’ hands by precipitating the shutdown? He focused his ire concerning the shutdown on how the dispute came to a head in September: 

Did anybody not hear the question? The question is – he’s under the assumption – he’s wondering: Would it be self-defeating to be somebody who would be a proponent of shutting down the government? Are we not playing into the hands essentially of Democrats with that thought process?

I would say absolutely, that would be the case, which is why not even a little am I a proponent of that. So if in anything that I’ve said I’ve left you with that impression, I don’t know how I’ve done that. ​

Because not even to the slightest degree am I a proponent of shutting down the government. Not even a little bit. In fact, I think our shutdown of it was so irresponsible because of the fact that we waited until the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute before we even started to discuss it.

That’s one of the other things that’s destroying this country, is that we have become so partisan.

It’s true that, throughout the fall budget debate, nobody said they wanted a shutdown. Reporters would press conservatives in the Capitol: But aren’t you worried that shutting down the government will backfire? We don’t want to shut down the government, they would say, we want to fund everything in the government except Obamacare. 

In that sense, Bevin’s proclamation of his opposition to shutting down the government is not remarkable. Another part of his analysis is also more or less routine: He points out that Republicans in Washington didn’t press the issue until September, far too late to win the public’s hearts and minds. “Even [Utah senator] Mike Lee’s letter” — organizing members against including Obamacare money in the next government-funding bill — “came out I believe in July,” he noted in the interview. A number of conservatives have made similar complaints about how the GOP leadership handled the shutdown episode. If they had been beating the war drums to defund Obamacare throughout the summer, the thinking goes, the battle might have been won.

It’s Bevin’s broader indictments of partisanship and intransigence that are difficult to square with his public image as a conservative alternative to McConnell — specifically, his statement that “this idea of us being bomb throwers, being zealots who ‘it’s my way or the highway’” is “craziness.” One way to take Bevin’s remarks is as a rejection of the labels that liberals use to criticize conservatives. Matt Hoskins, the head of the Senate Conservatives Fund group that has been strongly backing his campaign, says: “Matt Bevin was pushing back against the language used by Mitch McConnell and the Democrats to attack conservatives. We aren’t bomb throwers and we never supported a government shutdown. Conservatives have a system of principles that we believe should guide public policy because they will empower Americans to live free and prosperous lives. Matt Bevin is right to push back against these false labels.”

But still, whom was he referring to as “bomb throwers”? Whom is he directing his criticisms at?

Not Ted Cruz, not Mike Lee, not Rand Paul, Bevin told me. “I applaud them for taking a principled stand. An informed stand. A representative stand. Because what they were doing was representing and fighting for the will of the people.”

So, who?

“I wasn’t naming specific people,” he said. “I can think of one example that I’m not even going to throw out there because it’ll get spun into its own little orbit of misinterpretation. There have been people who will just take a stand and will not move off of it regardless of how ill-informed that stance is. . . . That was not the case in anything involved in the budget debate, or the funding of Obamacare.”

Bevin also explained his thinking on Reagan more fully. Reagan and O’Neill both understood they needed to “focus on what is in the best interest of the country, and of the people, and not specifically what my ideology or party are telling me to do,” he said. “Now in reality — and now I’m just being partisan here, but I’m telling you — when people focus on reality, and pragmatism, and when they focus on what is in the best interest of the country, they do move towards conservative thinking. I’m biased, but I’m telling you. That’s how Reagan got it done, because O’Neill was smart enough to appreciate that Reagan was right. And he wasn’t such a stubborn zealot that he wouldn’t compromise on that.

“Do you think Harry Reid would have done anything as remotely statesmanlike as Tip O’Neill? And believe me, I’m not a fan of Tip O’Neill. Gracious. But, that said, do you think that Harry Reid would have done anything as remotely statesmanlike? I don’t. He is a man who will dig his heels in and throw a little temper tantrum. . . . He’s been getting away with it because McConnell gets played like a sock puppet by Harry Reid. Repeatedly.”

At the end of our conversation, Bevin vowed to stick to principle if elected to the Senate.

“If 100 people are saying ‘x’ and I know that ‘y’ is the right thing to do, then ‘y’ is what I’ll do. If a hundred are zigging, and zagging is the right thing to do, then zagging is what I’ll do. I have always been this way, and this is exactly how I’ll be as a senator,” he said.

— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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