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August 05, 2014 11:24 AM The Ghost of Henry Clay

By Ed Kilgore

In other Rand Paul news:

Having recently read a biography of Henry Clay, and currently slogging through a history of the Whigs, I am naturally fascinated by an argument going on between two of my favorite fellow political writers, TNR’s Brian Beutler and Slate’s Dave Weigel, over what exactly Mitch McConnell meant in calling Paul “the most credible candidate for president of the United States since Henry Clay.”

Buetler thinks this may have been a backhanded compliment at best or perhaps the “nerdiest attack in political history” (as the header to his piece suggests):

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.

Weigel, however, views McConnell’s Clay tribute as a recognition of Paul’s ideological evolution, and adds some more perspective to Paul’s maiden speech:

If you haven’t read Paul’s maiden speech in a while—and really, what’s been keeping you?—he contrasted Henry Clay negatively with his cousin, the abolitionist Cassius Clay. “Henry Clay’s life story is, at best, a mixed message,” explained Paul. “Henry Clay’s great compromise was over slavery. One could argue that he rose above sectional strife to carve out compromise after compromise trying to ward off civil war. Or one could argue that his compromises were morally wrong and may have even encouraged war, that his compromises meant the acceptance during his 50 years of public life of not only slavery, but the slave trade itself. In the name of compromise, Clay was by most accounts not a cruel master, but a master nonetheless of 48 slaves. He supported the fugitive slave law until his death. He compromised on the extension of slavery into new states. He was the deciding vote in the House to extend slavery into Arkansas….”
McConnell idolizes Clay, and since 2011, when Paul made that speech, he has slowly walked away from his image as an uncompromising Tea Party candidate, into a more comfortable and warmly covered image as a bridge-building civil liberties advocate.
Maybe McConnell was trying to slip one past a room of Republicans. Or maybe he meant it. I’m in the “meant it” camp, and mark this as a telling and aspirational compliment to a politician that McConnell has an understanding with.

I dunno. It would be characteristic of the highly cynical Mr. McConnell to have meant this as both a compliment and an insult, sort of like the chronic tippler congratulating the self-righteous teetotaller on his first drinking binge. The most common take on Henry Clay is that his lust for the presidency ruined what was otherwise a brilliant career—and ultimately robbed him of the prize he so desperately wanted. Rand Paul is running for president (or if not, then performing an extraordinarily convincing dry run) at an even more precocious stage of his political career than Clay’s first bid for the White House in 1824. Who knows what compromises or flip-flops he might eventually embrace if he’s frustrated as many times as was Henry Clay?

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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