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Jack Conway: “I am not going to cut benefits, I am not going to raise the retirement age.”

Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate in Kentucky, has been at the leading edge of the fight against the country’s conservative backlash. Back in the spring, tea party protesters held a rally outside his state Attorney General’s office, demanding that he sign on to lawsuits charging that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional. “I said at the time that it made for good tea party politics but bad lawsuits,” said Conway, now running against Republican nominee Rand Paul in a closely-watched Senate race. “I’ve been fighting these guys for four or five months.” While some polls show him losing ground in that fight (Conway’s pollster heavily disputes the 15-point spread found in that recent SurveryUSA poll), others have him in the thick of the race.

Conway is holding a moneybomb today, to contrast Paul’s periodic online fundraising efforts, and he believes he can outraise Paul’s last $260,000 harvest. I had a chance to talk with him today about a variety of subjects.

On how to combat the Tea Party: “You have to use facts,” Conway said, detailing multiple instances in which his opponent has played to fear and outright lied to gain political advantage. “He made allegations about dead farmers getting support payments, which turned out was not true. He talks about expenditures for federal agencies which just aren’t true. He said that being in America today feels like being in the time of the fall of Rome. I go with Bill Clinton’s message, that there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right in America. I have faith in the voters that they’ll get this right.

On the banks: Conway brought up, unprompted, some issues we raised in our last interview, about his concerns with the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. “We lost the idea of moral hazard, and during the last crisis, the too big to fail banks only got bigger. We ended up with the same systemic risk in the system.” He said that the Volcker rule “didn’t go far enough,” and that generally Congress did not learn the proper lessons from the financial crisis. I find it interesting that issues like this don’t get more attention on the stump. Nate Silver noted today that financial reform barely gets a mention on the websites of the most threatened Democratic candidates. Maybe that speaks to its complexity. But there seems like plenty of value in a message that the work hasn’t ended with TBTF and the risky mega-banks, and Conway makes that message compelling.

On Alan Simpson and Social Security. Conway has taken up a number of issues which are getting traction in the progressive community. He has called for Elizabeth Warren to get the nomination for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and he has called for Alan Simpson to step down from his position on the deficit commission. “Anyone who stands up and describes the most popular social program in American history as a milk cow with 300 million teats is not coming from a place of intellectual honesty about the program,” Conway said. As for his specific policies on Social Security, Conway said that the projections of its insolvency are way out, decades in the future, “much further than Medicare.” He was adamantly against any cuts to the program. “Our hair doesn’t need to be on fire for this. I am not going to cut benefits, I am not going to raise the retirement age. I am not going to harm senior’s access to this program.”

On the Obama jobs program. I asked Conway about the emerging recovery package being pushed by the Administration. He maintained that jobs and spending are the biggest two topics he hears about on the campaign trail, dwarfing everything else. Conway supports extending the R&D tax credit and has proposed it in the past. On the infrastructure spending, he stepped more gingerly. “I like it in theory. The two things I’d want to know is, one, where are we on spending remainder of stimulus? And two, how’s it paid for. I think paygo is very important. $50 billion here, $50 billion there, soon you’re talking about real money.”

After I told him that one option floated would be to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, he again just said that he would want to see the pay-fors. Conway has proposed his own tax credit, a “hometown tax credit” which would free up lending to small businesses by recapitalizing regional and community banks, and offering smaller credit rates to those banks based on how much lending they do. He does pay for that initiative as well, by “closing offshore tax loopholes” and charging companies domestic tax rates for their offshore operations. “I think we need to do all we can in these times to help us grow,” Conway said. “But my constituents and I are concerned enough about spending that I would want to see how things are paid for.”

On Afghanistan: I asked Conway about the Kabul Bank mess and the rampant corruption clearly at work in Afghanistan. He said that while his constituents weren’t asking him much about Afghanistan on the campaign trail, “It ought to be at the top of mind. This candidate hasn’t forgotten about it.” Citing the men and women from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, serving in the operation, Conway expressed serious reservations about the escalation strategy favored by President Obama. “What does it mean to win the war,” Conway wondered, especially in a part of the world where Pakistan has the same kind of problems with stability and terrorists inside their borders that we’re supposed to be fighting in Afghanistan to prevent. “Without a regional solution we can’t meet success,” Conway said, aligning himself with Joe Biden’s position on a more limited set of operations. “We’ve heard for years that Karzai is corrupt… It’s just an unacceptable situation.”

Rand Paul hasn’t really offered much of an opinion on these matters, at odds with his father, who is strongly against the war. “You’ll have to ask Rand Paul where he stands,” Conway said. “We can’t seem to get him to do interviews. He won’t debate me, he said he only wants to go on Fox News for a debate, we said we’d do it if he’d go on Meet the Press and he said no.” Conway thinks that Paul is laying low on Afghanistan because he is “Saying what he needs to say” for his political base. “He said ‘my father’s a heck of lot more forthright than I am,’ which tells you something,” Conway added.

On health care. Conway thinks that health care has “receded as a front-burner issue” in Kentucky. He doesn’t think people fully understand the law and the benefits, but people are taking a wait-and-see approach. “The GOP must think they have traction on it, American Crossroads just put up an ad attacking me on the issue… the thing is, if you ask people if they support keeping a child on their parent’s plan until they’re 26, they agree. If you ask them about ending exclusion for pre-existing conditions, they agree. If you ask them about subsidies for buying insurance, they agree. But if you put that all together and call it the Obama health care plan, suddenly they’re against it.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen