If you were to look for the very last moment when the Democrats might have avoided, or at least mitigated, the wave that swept over them in November, it may have come on Tuesday, September 14, just after lunchtime. That’s when Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader from Kentucky, emerged from a weekly caucus meeting to address reporters gathered beneath the Ohio Clock in the U.S. Capitol and take care of an important piece of business. Two days earlier, on the CBS show Face the Nation, McConnell’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, John Boehner of Ohio, had blundered in answering a hypothetical question by suggesting he would consider something short of a full extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. The White House intended to frame the election as a choice between the party of the middle class (Democrats) and the party of the rich (Republicans) by splitting the extension into two votes: one tax cut for the middle class, and another for the rich. Republicans had steadfastly refused—until Boehner flinched. The next day’s New York Times headline was “Boehner Shifts on Tax-Cut Bill Backed by Democrats.” Sensing controversy and a change in momentum, the media were eager to pounce. Boehner had wisely vanished, leaving McConnell to repair the damage.
Flanked by his leadership team, McConnell stepped to the microphone and proceeded to extinguish any hope of a compromise. In his curt southern manner, he declared that Republicans were united in wanting to extend all the tax cuts; that several Democrats had voiced unease about the White House strategy; and that he would relish the chance to talk about the Bush tax cuts, whose expiration, he warned, would “throw a wet blanket over the recovery.”
McConnell, 68, is owlish, phlegmatic, and gray, and often looks bothered, as though lunch isn’t agreeing with him. He has been described as having “the natural charisma of an oyster.” Yet you sense that this is not so much a burden as a choice, that he has pared away any qualities extraneous to his political advancement. McConnell has the relentless drive and ambition you frequently encounter in Washington. But unlike so many others, he longs to be not president but majority leader of the Senate—a position conferred by his peers and not voters, so geniality and popularity with the press don’t interest him. “Every answer he ever gives is geared toward strategy within the Senate,” says his friend Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, meaning this as a compliment.
McConnell nevertheless manipulates the press masterfully, using methods that are head-smackingly obvious and yet still elude most politicians. He knows exactly what he wants to say, repeats it with emphasis, then stops. He will not be drawn out, and has no compunction about refusing questions. He would never make Boehner’s mistake, because he won’t entertain hypotheticals. “We don’t issue a whole lot of currency,” his spokesman says. What McConnell does say makes news.
At the press conference, reporters jockeyed to throw him off message and extract some further bit that might drive the story forward. His unvarying reply when asked about Boehner was: “It does not make sense to raise taxes in a recession,” a phrase he uttered nine times in barely as many minutes. The effect was like watching a swarm of mosquitoes encounter a bug zapper. After he wrapped up the proceedings, the reporters broke their huddle and scurried to buttonhole individual senators. McConnell ignored them and walked off. The story soon dried up. No vote took place. And the elections were, as McConnell intended them to be, an unadulterated referendum on President Obama.