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What the Devil won't tell you

Once & future Sen. Kyl is a dicey proposition for Team MAGA

I called Jon Kyl a water carrier for a president once … once.

Jon Kyl is heading back to the U.S. Senate and I gotta admit, I can’t tell if Gov. Doug Ducey did Donald Trump a favor or is shipping him a nasty tequila hangover.

Ducey appointed Kyl on Tuesday to fill U.S. Sen. John McCain’s seat through the rest of the current congressional session, which ends Jan. 3. He may stay longer but he’s not committing to anything other than staying out of the 2020 election.

I can already see the Facebook comments under this story. Attack! Attack! Attack!

Who the hell else was Ducey going to pick? The law required him to pick a Republican. Meghan McCain wasn’t an option for a governor who needs his base to turn out, and the late senator's daughter tweeted happy thoughts about Kyl’s appointment.

Kyl and Trump are 99 percent genetic matches in the same way people and chimpanzees are nearly identical. It’s just the last smidgen of difference that makes them different species.

Immediately, Ducey turns U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh from a layup into a slam dunk. Kyl, after all, was the guy shepherding Kavanaugh from senator to senator. Kyl turning on Kavanaugh is about as likely as Michael Jordan turning on Nike.

Kyl won’t face re-election and said he will go to the Senate to put “country first” and serve “the institution of the U.S. Senate.

Upon his appointment, Kyl refused to back off his earlier criticism of Trump’s “boorish” style.

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He clarified, in a way, saying that Trump can be his own worst enemy and upend his own ambitions, which sounds like the same kind of futility others have found in trying to explain to the president the basics of maturity. Trump only finds that information useful until his next temper tantrum. 

So Kyl’s appointment could break either way. Trump could co-opt Kyl or Kyl could stand up to Trump in ways he never did to George W. Bush.

Before knee-jerk liberals lose start kicking, hear me out.

The water boy

I barely knew John McCain. He was off and running for president by the time I became a full-time “political writer” at a newspaper serving a metro market.

Kyl and I go back a ways.

The once and future senator served the state in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2013 as a true hyperpartisan and borderline wingnut. He just never shed his dignity and carried himself with honor.

That ain’t nothing but it’s bridge a half mile too far for President Donald J. Trump and the voters who love him. Honor means nothing. Obedience matters.

Our first meeting still makes me cringe. Not because of him but because of me. I was working in Globe and a little too eager to climb the circulation ladder and prove I was a real “big-city-ready” reporter. He was running for Senate and asked for a meeting with someone at the paper. He got me and me alone. I went full Tim Russert at him for about an hour and he was a sport about it.

I covered Flagstaff forestry issues and dealt with him up there, and then later down in these parts. We got on fine.

There was one thing he got pissed about and that’s a bit telling.

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Right after the 2006 election, I wrote a political notebook benignly pointing out that as leader of the Senate Republican Conference – the No. 3 Republican in the U.S. Senate – he was going on the Sunday news shows to defend the administration. 

He.

Lost.

His.

Mind.

His staff called me and said "Dude, you have no idea how angry he is." For some reason, though, he didn’t blame me. He blamed the editors because “carrying water” wound up in the headline. So he iced everyone at the Tucson Citizen except for yours truly. 

What had we done to so piss him off you ask?

In that snippet advancing Kyl's appearance on TV, I pointed out that he had the unenviable task of defending an unpopular administration on the heels of an electoral whipping. 

Kyl was offended – red-in-the-face offended – that the Tucson Citizen would suggest that a U.S. senator would “carry the water” for the executive branch. See, the U.S. Senate is a co-equal branch and senators should show loyalty only to their state and the U.S. Constitution.

Does that sound like something Trump would find appealing? I think nay.

The president acts as if the candidate who secures more than 270 electoral votes acquires America. All of it. It’s his toy and he gets to play with it how he wants. Kyl will not be amused by that.

Law and order

I also remember asking him once my favorite question to ask a candidate: “What gets you out of bed in the morning to do this job?”

His answer: “The rule of law.”

Now, call me hysterical but the day before Ducey announced Kyl’s appointment, Trump tweeted that the Department of Justice should not investigate Republicans after insisting Attorney General Jeff Sessions investigate Democrats.

Time Magazine once called Kyl one of the 10 best senators in America because he was “the master of subterfuge.” He loudly proclaimed his partisan defiance but quietly worked pragmatic angles. He’s a behind-the-scenes guy. I’m pretty sure he spent a lot of time rebundling and repackaging the crazier elements of the GOP. It was all in the name of, y’know, helping them out by taking the edges off them.

He did show a willingness to anger his own party. In 2007, he and Sen. Edward Kennedy worked on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that never went anywhere but it was still enough for the state Republican Party to censure Kyl for his actions.

He served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and worked with a lot of the same folks (James Clapper, Michael Hayden) whom Trump now calls part of the Deep State conspiracy out to destroy him. I seriously doubt siding with the Kremlin over Quantico goes down smooth with Kyl.

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And nobody – absolutely nobody – knew Arizona like Kyl. He walked around with an encyclopedic knowledge of every community in the state, which ones needed which projects and the status of each of them. While McCain was off playing Captain America, Kyl seemed to do double duty looking after his home state.

My guess is that Kyl won’t serve past January if he has to serve under Democratic control. Being in the minority is just no fun.

It’s possible, if not probable, that Kyl will go back to the Senate and keep his head down and serve the Grand Ole Party. On the other hand, Kyl is the perfect candidate to go before the public and tell the president what Republican senators would say themselves if they didn’t face re-election.

Brand loyalty

Kyl’s brand of conservatism moored itself in ideas: Small government, personal responsibility, free markets, the rule of law and rampant partisanship. Today, “conservativism” has pretty much jettisoned the first three foundations in favor of “whataboutism,” tariffs and attacks on federal law enforcement if it dares to hold Republicans to the same legal standard as the rest of the country. They have done that because the rank-in-file partisans have surrendered to an overlord and demand the same of their elected leaders.

Partisanship is all that’s left and in that, Ducey might have sent them a kindred spirit. Kyl shared the modern conservative’s allergy to liberalism. I never heard him say a nice thing about a Democrat other than Diane Feinstein. He always seemed to reflexively recoil from any nugget of progressive thought.

Wingnut? Sure. Remember when that was the scariest thing one could think about the GOP?

The wingnuts deserved representation in Washington and Kyl gave it to them without giving into their worst vices. Now that those vices have gotten so much worse, we’ll see how well he walks that line.

Kyl’s partisan. He’s not despotic. Then again, I've thought that before about others (Lindsey Graham) who have been measured and proven wanting.

Is Kyl a conservative? Or is he simply an anti-lib? 

Finding the line Kyl won’t cross will be fascinating and horrifying. 

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.


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