The most interesting news to come out of Kentucky this weekend was that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters of his junior colleague Rand Paul: “I can say this without fear of contradiction: He is the most credible candidate for president of the United States since Henry Clay.”
Since both senators represent Kentucky, it’s safe to assume McConnell meant to imply that Paul is the most credible Kentuckian candidate for president since Clay, and that he doesn’t include turncoats like Lincoln—who was born in Kentucky but emigrated to Barack Obama’s Illinois—as true Kentuckians like Paul, who originally hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
I see a few people treating this as evidence that an old rift between the two has healed, or that they’re willing to set aside past rivalries for the sake of party unity. McConnell supported Paul’s opponent in the 2010 Kentucky Senate primary, and Paul frequently joins a rump of GOP senators who at times make McConnell’s job incredibly difficult.
But if you know the history between these two, you can just as easily construe it as a backhanded compliment. Clay is McConnell’s hero. Admiration for Clay is perhaps the only thing McConnell has in common with Nancy Pelosi.
Rand Paul shares no such affinity. Clay was the “Great Compromiser.” On that abstract score at least, Paul hails from the tradition of John C. Calhoun, not of Henry Clay, even though ironically he now sits at Clay's (and McConnell's) old desk in the Senate. Paul broadsided Clay in his maiden Senate floor speech in February 2011—an unexpected heresy from a freshman politician from Kentucky, which was probably actually directed at McConnell (who keeps a portrait of Clay in his Senate office) rather than at random history buffs who might’ve been watching C-SPAN at the time. It was the legislative equivalent of a subtweet. In the middle of Paul’s speech, McConnell walked off the Senate floor.
Also, Clay lost the presidency three times. Viewed in the light of all that history, I think there might be more to McConnell’s comparison than meets the eye. And that McConnell has better Twitter etiquette than Paul.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.