The Darth Vader Moment That Made Mitch McConnell

The author of a new Mitch McConnell biography explains how he won and keeps winning.

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A Darth Vader character from 501st Legion throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the Seattle Mariners take on the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on September 5, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Last month, The New Republic's Alec MacGillis published a meaty e-book biography of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who's on track to run the Senate after this November's elections. Since then, McConnell's bid for re-election has maintained a very small lead over Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, but the press has looked for ways to find a pulse in the McConnell campaign and an open grave for the Democrats.

Over this past weekend, for example, the pundit class ridiculed Grimes for refusing to tell an editorial board whether she — as a 2012 Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention — voted for the president over Mitt Romney. (The Democratic ticket lost Kentucky by 23 points.) Coverage of this race has often rewarded McConnell for his winningness and savvy, so I contacted MacGillis with a few questions about the politician and the portrait he declined to sit for.

DW: Right now, the political world is having a laugh over Alison Lundergan Grimes's insistence on not admitting that she voted for Obama. I look at that and ask why she's within spitting distance of McConnell when Obama lost the state by a bigger margin than Walter Mondale. McConnell always wins, but why does he always have a race?

AM: Exactly right. This shouldn't be a race. Kentucky went for Mitt Romney by 23 points, all but one member of its congressional delegation is Republican, and McConnell's sway as one of the most powerful people in Washington is still an asset even in the post-earmark era: for a state that's used to being looked down on, it means something to have one of its own running the show. And he's had 30 years to build a relationship with voters.

But that's just it — he doesn't have that relationship. He is so unnatural a politician that he hasn't developed that reservoir of goodwill that a Robert Byrd had in West Virginia or Jack Warner had in Virginia. When McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984 (by a mere 5,000 votes in a year when Reagan won the state by nearly 300,000), Rep. Gene Snyder, a conservative who was McConnell's first boss in Washington, was overheard remarking that Kentuckians had just elected to the Senate someone who had fewer friends in the state than "anybody elected to anything." And that hasn't really changed with time. Even in a state as Republican as Kentucky, familiarity has bred contempt more than affection. Kentuckians have watched from afar as McConnell climbed the ladder in Washington, and many of them, even ones who lean Republican, have been left with the sense that it's all been about him, not them.

DW: The WSJ's critical review of the book insists that you seem "puzzled and hurt that President Obama’s chief opponent in the Senate turns out to be a liberal Republican rather than a right-wing maniac." That's not quite how I read it, but could you respond to that? How liberal was McConnell at the start of his career?

AM: I was amused by that line. It was indeed a revelation to me just how liberal McConnell had been in his early years, but I was hardly hurt by that--quite the opposite, it provides the making of a good story, trying to figure out how McConnell got from where he was in the 1960s and '70s to where he is today. It's hard to overstate how far he's swung. This is someone who turned out for pro-civil rights rallies in college; who as a Senate staffer wrote the RNC with advice on how to go about "convincing Blacks and other minority groups in the country the Republican Party is a logical home"; who fired off a letter praising a pro-moderation essay in Playboy (yes, Playboy) by a leader of the Ripon Society, the organization for moderate Republicans; who declined a membership invitation from the Kentucky State Rifle & Pistol Association; who got the endorsement of the AFL-CIO in his first race, in 1977, by supporting collective bargaining for public employees; who repeatedly snuffed out anti-abortion legislation while he was county executive in Louisville; who opposed Reagan in both the '76 and '80 primaries.

Now, of course, he rails against unions, has twice voted against immigration reform (in 2007 and last year), appeared at CPAC last spring waving a rifle in the air; and a few months later declared to the National Right to Life Convention that "Kentucky is proudly pro-life." It's hard to find someone who more closely tracks the transformation of that party over the past three decades--which, for me, was part of the intellectual appeal of taking him on as a subject.

DW: You've got a lot of on-record quotes from Republican colleagues of McConnell, like Bob Bennett, who are downright proud of the political maneuvering that you're branding as "cynical." Chuck Grassley, for example, says outright that McConnell told him if he played ball on Obamacare, he might get a primary challenge. But to what extent did Republicans think McConnell blew it by cutting the party out of bills that ended up passing?

AM: Well, this is the great debate, right? The obstruction strategy undoubtedly helped fuel the 2010 sweep, by forcing Obama and the Democrats to push stuff through on partisan votes that helped fire the right-wing insurgency. And the 2010 sweep ain't nothing--it all but shut down Obama's legislative agenda for the final six years of his presidency, not to mention giving Republicans a lasting edge in state capitals and redistricting. But then there are those who quietly agree with David Frum when he said of the health care outcome, "We went for all the marbles [and] we ended with none."

Among the Republicans I spoke with, there was a range on this. Grassley was adamant that the Democrats would not have conceded much on policy had Republicans been more willing to negotiate--this, despite the fact Max Baucus spent months offering Grassley just such concessions. Bob Bennett and Dick Lugar were a bit slower to endorse the McConnell approach (perhaps partly because the insurgency he abetted ended up swallowing them.) "I would be very loath to challenge his motives or his decisions," Bennett told me. "Mitch had to make a decision as to what would work and what wouldn't, what would preserve his power over the long term and what he had to concede [to the Tea Party] over the short term to do that." It's not hard to read some second-guessing between the lines there.

DW: You quote from a Watergate-era McConnell op-ed in which he argued for an incredibly restrictive campaign finance system. And you point out that he says that this was pablum for voters. How has McConnell evolved on campaign finance reform?

AM: He's evolved more on that issue than any other, and it's all the more striking because it is now, of course, his issue. That 1973 op-ed (written in his capacity as county GOP chairman in Louisville), called for slashing contribution limits from $2,500 to $300, disclosing all donors, and setting a cap on overall campaign spending--he even spoke favorably of a city-run campaign trust fund then under consideration and of public financing for gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. But by the time he arrived in the Senate he quickly shifted to a partisan warrior on the issue, opposing any reforms that he thought would play to the other side's benefit.

The best way to understand his post-1973 evolution is that he started running for office himself, and realized how important money would be for someone like him who was so lacking in conventional campaigning skills. He was quite candid about the self-interest of his stance early on; it was only later that he seized on the First Amendment argument for opposing reform, a rationale he cleverly buttressed by flipping to oppose the flag-burning amendment on First Amendment grounds. He was also very deft at always pairing his opposition with whatever reform was on the table with support for some reform that wasn't yet in the offing; and then when reformers took up that idea, he'd oppose it, too, while naming something else he could support. So he was for banning soft money before he was against it; and he was for disclosing all contributions before he led the filibuster to block the Disclose Act in 2010. Nowhere has his cynical savvy been as effective as on the campaign finance front. 

DW: On every page of the book or so there's some McConnell acquaintance saying the guy had no friends. How did he end up taking over the GOP conference? Why, when it came down to it, was his only potential opponent Larry Craig?

AM: It's like the sports cliche: he wanted it more than anyone else. He's like Harry Reid in this regard: all he's ever dreamed of is climbing in the Senate, unlike the other 98 senators who think they might someday become president. He actually failed in his first couple bids to move up the ladder, twice losing out to Phil Gramm to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But then he started gaming things out like Tracy Flick, sending Bob Bennett out as a wing-man months or even years before leadership elections to gauge support and bad-mouth possible rivals. As Bennett described it to me: "John Warner would say, 'It's far too early, I don't want to discuss it,' and I'd say, 'Okay, that's not a no,' and I'd keep at it: 'John, did you hear this [about Larry Craig]?' and he'd say, 'I didn't like that.'" To which Bennett would respond, "Well, there's always Mitch..." It didn't hurt that a lot of senators knew they owed McConnell for the dirty work he'd done in fighting campaign finance reform on their party's behalf. He became the Darth Vader on that issue so that they could keep the money flowing, and earned their undying gratitude for that.

DW: McConnell has been saying for most of this cycle that he'll open up the Senate if he wins, as opposed to seeking revenge on Democrats for their rule changes. Based on your reporting, does he believe that? Why is he saying it?

He's saying it mostly for public consumption, as part of his effort to shift the blame for Senate dysfunction to Harry Reid. As the Washington Post's Paul Kane noted in a piece after McConnell's big speech last January laying out his promises for a return to a more open Senate, there's good reason to be skeptical. After all, it was McConnell who weakened committee prerogative with his undermining of Baucus and Grassley's work on health care; who abetted the use of poison-pill amendments by fellow Republicans, leading Reid to restrict amendments; who capitalized on the shortened Senate work-week to skip out to constant fundraisers.

That said, this is one area where McConnell may not be totally insincere. He is so deeply committed to the Senate as an institution--or, at least, likes to imagine himself as deeply committed to the Senate as an institution--that there is surely part of him that is pained to see what has come of the place since he began working there in the 1960s, and would like to see it restored to something other than a laughingstock. Whether he recognizes his own considerable role in this degradation is another matter. 

DW: Here's a bigger question: Did you come away from this book with any insight about what sort of government McConnell actually wants? It's pretty easy to look at the record and say what Rand Paul's utopia would look like. What is McConnell's?

AM:  I put this question to just about everyone I spoke to in my reporting, and no one--not even his allies in the Senate--really had an answer. You can come up with something very general: he prefers a government that is relatively internationalist overseas and pro-business at home, with a minimum of hassles with messy social issues like abortion, race and marriage. But that's obviously an awfully unspecified vision. It's never been about the vision--it's about the game, which is why the underlying theme of the book is that McConnell embodies the permanent campaign's takeover of Washington better than anyone. As John Yarmuth, Kentucky's lone Democratic congressman, who's known McConnell for five decades, put it: "It's always been about power, the political game, and it's never been about the core values that drive political life." McConnell's utopia is a government with him as Senate Majority Leader. Period.

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