A couple of years ago, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway got into trouble when he told a Fancy Farm crowd he was one tough S.O.B.

Now, David Williams and Steve Beshear are telling voters how tough they are — although a bit more politely than Conway. It’s funny. First, there’s Beshear,  at times ignored by lawmakers in both parties, who publicly waged a campaign to wrest control of the Senate from Williams and failed, and whose legislative agenda (gambling and increasing the high school drop-out age) is routinely thwarted in Williams’ Republican-controlled Senate.

But in a television ad, Beshear’s running mate, Jerry Abramson, says: “Times are tough,” and Beshear responds that they will “make the tough decisions.” At the end of every ad there is this alliterative theme: “Tested, trusted, tough.”

Meanwhile Williams — who critics dub “the bully from Burkesville” — is busy trying to soften his image. He regularly makes self-deprecating jokes before groups like the Kentucky Farm Bureau and county judge-executives and magistrates about not being well liked. He laughs and says, “I’m working on it.” His first television ad shows old family photographs of him as an infant and as a toddler with his father, long-time Cumberland County Clerk Lewis Williams.

His ads say he’ll make the “tough decisions” Kentucky required to improve its economy and put its fiscal house in order.

They’re not alone of course. Conway’s Republican opponent Todd P’Pool promises to get tough with President Barack Obama on the environment, coal and health care. Speaking to the county judge-executives and magistrates last week, he took a tough-on-crime approach when asked about House Bill 463, the best example of actual legislative bi-partisanship in this town in decades. (Like the rest of them, P’Pool isn’t quite so tough in interviews when confronted with tough questions, though he’s no match for the toughest interview in Kentucky – fellow Republican Mitch McConnell who never strays from message or answers a question he doesn’t like.)

McConnell’s party is taking a tough stance in Congress in the face of what economists on both sides of the political aisle say might be an imminent financial collapse in the absence of an agreement on the debt ceiling. Last year, Republicans rode alarming warnings about spending and the deficit to win control of the U.S. House and picked up seats in the Senate.

They won the debate. Even Obama says the solution must include deep cuts in government spending and he’s proposed cuts far in excess of what anyone expected of him or his party a year ago. In exchange, he’s asking not for increases in tax rates but the closing of some loopholes even Republicans have said need closing. Polls show significant majority support (a couple indicate even a slight majority of Republicans agree) for tax increases on the wealthy to address the deficit. But House Republicans, held captive by a Tea Party-influenced freshman class, say no way (so far). There’s one tough S.O.B. they fear more than the debt — Grover Norquist, the unelected, anti-tax crusader who wields more power among Congressional Republicans than their leaders.

It reminds me again of something a journalism teacher at Western Kentucky University told me nearly 40 years ago: “Listen to what they say, but watch what they do.” Watching the Congressional Republicans indicates taxes, not the deficit, is their first priority.

Most voters want cooperation and solutions more than toughness. No wonder so many of them view our elected representatives as S.O.B.s who make life tough on everyone else.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort, Ky. He may be contacted by email at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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