State of the Union January/February 2011

Strict Obstructionist

Mitch McConnell is a master manipulator and strategist—the unheralded architect of the Republican resurgence. Now that his relentless tactics have made his party victorious, he is poised to take down the president and win the Senate majority he covets—if he can fend off the Tea Party and keep his own caucus together.

When a party loses a presidential election, a void opens up at the top. In the past two years, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and John Boehner have each been put forward as the de facto leader of the Republican Party. But at least in Washington, McConnell has been the crucial man. When Obama took office with large majorities in Congress, it seemed possible that the country might be on the cusp of a Democratic era. Nobody anticipated the Republican swing only two years later, in part because besides lacking a leader, the party had not formulated any clear set of ideas that might bring one about. And the poisonous tenor of today’s politics has surprised the many people who believed that Obama would usher in the “post-partisan” age he summoned so convincingly on the campaign trail. McConnell had a lot to do with both outcomes.

Many times in the past, when the country has gotten into real trouble, the parties have come together to do what is necessary to set things right again. A good recent illustration is the Troubled Asset Relief Program (aka “the bailout”), which kept the economy from collapse, was supported by both party leaderships and was signed into law by President Bush in October 2008. McConnell called TARP’s passage “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.” Obama took over expecting this spirit to endure. But from the outset, McConnell blocked or frustrated just about everything the administration tried to do, including the government’s distribution of TARP funds, in January 2009, just three months after McConnell voted to authorize them.

When I visited McConnell in Kentucky just before the midterm elections, he cast his opposition as a principled response to Democratic attempts to exploit a national crisis. “Rahm Emanuel famously said, ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’ ” he told me. “They rolled out what we thought was a hard-left agenda. Looking at it from their point of view, at the time, it was not an irrational decision. They thought they had an extraordinarily popular president, and they were just gonna do it, things they’d wanted to do for 30 years that had been bottled up, either because it was a Republican president or because it was a Republican Congress. There was always some impediment that prevented them from Europeanizing the country. And so all of a sudden, this was their shot.” There’s some truth to this line of criticism—especially where it pertains to the stimulus, which included much that wasn’t directly related to jump-starting the economy.

But McConnell didn’t waste the crisis, either. He has used it to chart a path back from oblivion for the Republican Party, mainly by blocking or delaying Democratic bills and then raising an outcry about the travesties being perpetrated on the country. Democrats may have won on health care, the stimulus, Wall Street reform, and a host of other measures that made the last Congress the most productive in a generation. But, at least for now, they have lost the political battle. Significant numbers of Americans disapprove of these policies, especially the expansion of health care. Many of them have been convinced by McConnell’s skillful exertions— especially his gift for scornful neologisms, which has helped to demonize not just Democratic policies but the very manner in which they came into being. (Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman, was a campaign adviser early in McConnell’s career.) If you got upset when you heard about the “Cornhusker Kickback” or the “Louisiana Purchase”—or perhaps you were lectured by a Fox News–watching relative who did—that was McConnell. He coined the terms to cast sinister aspersions on what were actually typical instances of political horse-trading, in this case over health care.

Two years into his presidency, Barack Obama no longer seems the obvious heir to John F. Kennedy, no one talks about post-partisanship anymore, and the atmosphere in Washington has returned to its ugly pre-2008 standoff. McConnell has been remarkably successful at turning the country against the Democrats. But not successful enough for everyone. The grim irony of his predicament is that by having been in Washington for 30 years, and having supported the bailout and congressional earmarks, he is viewed with contempt by the activist far right of his party, which has the momentum right now. For all his careful plotting and obstructing, McConnell has come under frequent criticism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party for not doing more, not going further, not pulling down the pillars of the temple. And for all that he exemplifies the win-at-all-costs mentality that is the essence of the conservative mood, McConnell isn’t getting much credit. But now that he’s led Republicans this far, the White House and the Senate majority he covets are both within reach. To get there, he’ll probably become even more aggressive. Just before the midterm elections, McConnell dispensed with the usual platitudes about working together and declared publicly, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

McConnell was born in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama in 1942. At age 2, with his father overseas in the Army, he developed polio in his left leg, and he attributes his lifelong determination to the influence of his mother, who conducted rigorous therapy sessions and enforced his doctor’s instructions not to walk. When he was in middle school, his father transferred jobs, and the family relocated to Louisville. A recent biography of McConnell describes him, already fully recognizable as a high-school freshman, plotting a successful campaign to win the student-body presidency in his junior year.

McConnell has always been a Republican, though not the kind for whom ideology holds any great importance. What he believes in is winning. His formative political experience was figuring out how to get elected and amass power as a Republican in the 1970s and ’80s in a heavily Democratic state.

After compiling a résumé designed for a career in politics—a stint in the Army (aborted when he was discharged for poor eyesight); degrees from the state’s two major schools, the University of Louisville (undergraduate) and the University of Kentucky (law); service to both of Kentucky’s U.S. senators; a low-level appointment in the Ford administration—McConnell became chairman of the Jefferson County GOP, where he identified strongly enough with the liberal wing of the Republican Party to name his cat after Nelson Rockefeller. His proudest accomplishment as an elected official during these years was using federal money to double the size of Jefferson Memorial Forest, the 6,200-acre wilderness outside Louis­ville.

In 1977, he won public office for the first time, becoming a Jefferson County judge—an important administrative post—in what was then the most expensive race in Louisville political history. McConnell came away convinced that Republicans could prevail so long as they were able to outspend their opponents, a lesson he has carried throughout his career. He turned himself into a prolific fund-raiser, gradually building Kentucky’s Republican infrastructure and operating as a power broker in the state even after being elected to the Senate in 1984.

For most of his time in the Senate, McConnell has been notable chiefly for maintaining a staunch opposition to campaign-finance reform that pitted him against one of his party’s biggest celebrities, Senator John McCain. At the time, McCain was still beloved by the press corps, and the cause of ridding politics of the corrupting influence of money had both a virtue and a momentum that ensured steady coverage. Charmless and dour, McConnell was an irresistible villain. The experience cannot have been pleasant, even for him. In addition to facing public scorn, he often had to operate without the support of his party leadership (a Republican president, George W. Bush, would eventually sign campaign-finance reform into law). This forced him to rely on procedural maneuvers to block objectionable legislation. It was then that McConnell developed many of the strategies he would later employ against the Obama administration.

In 1994, a time of comparatively civil interparty relations, when Democrats still controlled the White House and Congress, McConnell, trying to stop a reform bill that provided public financing for congressional races and had already passed both houses, discovered from the secretary of the Senate that the rules permitted a filibuster on the motion referring the bill to the House-Senate conference committee that would iron out the differences. But she advised him against trying, since no one ever had before. McConnell ignored her and succeeded, blocking the reform. Six weeks later, the Republicans captured the House and Senate.

When Barack Obama won the presidency, and the Republicans were reduced to a rump minority, McConnell was less rattled than just about any other Republican. “I remember coming to work on the day after the 2006 and the 2008 elections, when we’d just gotten drubbed,” Billy Piper, McConnell’s longtime chief of staff, told me. “And his attitude was ‘Let’s get back to work.’ He’s the least personal politician I’ve ever been around.” Senator Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who agreed to become Obama’s commerce secretary and then abruptly backed out, described the mood of the Republican caucus as “shell-shocked.” McConnell told Gregg, a member of his leadership team, that taking the post would be a serious mistake. He also may have foreseen difficulty for his friend in a White House that he fully intended to frustrate. A few days after the election, when the country was fully enraptured with Obama, McConnell told the conservative columnist George Will, “Governing is a hazardous business for presidential parties.”

McConnell called Obama on election night to congratulate him and received a call back two days later, as he stood in the cereal aisle of a Kroger supermarket in Louisville. Several people close to McConnell suggested that there was a real basis afterward for thinking they might work together. McConnell didn’t remember it that way. “The phone calls were just touching base,” he told me. “More significant, I think, is the fact that he and I didn’t have a private meeting until just before the August recess” of last year. His firm position is that the White House never had any interest in getting input from the minority, and marched off toward its liberal utopia, leaving Republicans no choice but to obstruct.

They went about this by escalating an arms race that had been building in the Senate for the better part of a decade: the increasingly aggressive use of rules and procedures by successive minorities to frustrate the will of the majority. The very first bill to be considered on the Senate floor in the 111th Congress, in early January of 2009, before Obama was even inaugurated, was the Public Land Management Act, a sweeping conservation measure with broad bipartisan support that would protect 2 million acres of parks and wilderness in nine states. The Republicans filibustered, forcing a series of votes and requiring a weekend session to finish. The bill eventually passed, 77–20.

The same tactics were deployed against most other initiatives, and expanded into new realms. Traditionally, only votes on the most controversial judicial nominees had been delayed or filibustered, although the number crept upward during Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies. Under McConnell, Republicans have also filibustered noncontroversial nominees, many later confirmed unanimously. They have filibustered even nominees put forward by Republican senators, and required separate votes for district-court judges, who used to be confirmed in groups as a matter of routine. The resulting increase in vacancies has exacerbated a shortage of judges across the country, leading many districts to declare “judicial emergencies”—vacancy levels so high that they threaten the courts’ ability to function. McConnell bet (correctly) that he would pay no political price for this type of obstruction, because the White House and the media would be preoccupied with other things—things even harder to accomplish as the Senate calendar filled up.

“Reporters underestimate how powerful the calendar is,” says Jim Manley, the former communications director for Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader. “Say you want to break a filibuster. On Monday, you file cloture on a motion to proceed for a vote on Wednesday. Assuming you get it, your opponents are allowed 30 hours of debate post-cloture on the motion to proceed. That takes you to Friday, and doesn’t cover amendments. The following Monday you file cloture on the bill itself, vote Wednesday, then 30 more hours of debate, and suddenly two weeks have gone by, for something that’s not even controversial.” All of this has slowed Senate business to a crawl.

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

More difficult was figuring out how to go up against the president himself. “Saint Barack,” as Republican aides called him, was wildly popular, and Republicans were not. From the outset, McConnell believed there would be opportunities for political arbitrage when the White House overreached. A voracious consumer of polling data, he was persuaded that although Obama and the Democrats had won handily, independent voters were not inclined to support liberal policies. “He concluded,” says a Republican strategist, “that people were exhausted from Bush and a seemingly intractable war. We’re a country of five-second sound bites and 30-second commercials. Eight years of one person is just too much.”

At a senators’ retreat in January 2009, McConnell circulated a strategy memo among his morose colleagues urging them to keep their focus on independents. “He kept saying to us, ‘Do not panic, do not give up,’” one senator told me. “He kept pointing out to us that while Obama had approval ratings in the 70s, he was not invulnerable. He said, ‘Let’s not confront him across the board, frontally. Let’s pick the fights we know we can win.’”

McConnell initially had to struggle for purchase. But in February, he settled on opposing Obama’s plan to close the terrorist-detention center at Guantánamo Bay. Somewhat unusually, the campaign was not orchestrated from some smoke-filled room but on the Senate floor itself. Most mornings, McConnell would give a speech of just a minute or two laying out the day’s message about Guantánamo (often the same one). His phraseology would be picked up by other Republican lawmakers and Fox News, and echo around the blogosphere. He gave 25 such speeches. “Winning on Guantánamo,” the senator told me, “sent a message to all of us that Obama was not bulletproof.” McConnell deployed the same daily barrage against financial reform (16 floor speeches) and health care (105 floor speeches). Along with the endless delays, this exacted a heavy toll on Democratic approval ratings. Obama could not evolve into a post-partisan leader, because McConnell wouldn’t let him. He pegged Obama as either too narcissistic or too naive to recognize that his promise of a harmonious new age was beyond his capacity to deliver. Harmony is easily withheld.

By November 2009, when Republican candidates swept the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey, the path back to power was clear: continue delaying, while encouraging the impression that Obama was pushing through an outrageous and objectionable agenda. Whoever was at fault, voters would blame Obama. Health care became the great example. “The fact that Obama’s health-care bill did not pass by the dates he kept putting on it was not an accident,” Senator Bennett told me. “McConnell knew the places to go, around the tank, and loosen a lug bolt here, pour sand in a hydraulic receptacle there, and slow the whole thing down. We finally ran out of options by Christmas Eve. But in the process of that yearlong journey, the Republicans won the public-relations battle.”

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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