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.
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.”
We’ve had an opportunity after almost two years to take a look at what this administration has been doing,” McConnell declared one bright day in late October. He was addressing the crowd gathered in a community center in the coal-country hamlet of Beattyville, Kentucky, to hear an “Update on Washington” from their state’s leading Republican. “It’s running banks, insurance companies, car companies, nationalized the student-loan business, took over our health care, passed a financial-services bill that not a single banker in Kentucky thought was a good idea,” he continued. “They’ve got people at the FCC trying to take over the Internet. People at the National Labor Relations Board trying to get rid of the secret ballots for labor-union elections. They passed a budget that puts us on a path to double the national debt in five years and triple it in 10. This is Big Government liberalism on display.”
McConnell has been building and nurturing this narrative for the better part of two years, channeling Americans’ anxieties and frustrations with the way things are going into an antipathy toward the federal government as run by Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress. As a matter of both public opinion and electoral politics, the results are plain. In 2006, Democrats won independent voters by an 18-point margin; last November, by an identical margin, these voters swung Republican. This translated to historic Republican gains—more than 60 House seats, six Senate seats, and five governorships—that might have been even greater had discontent with Washington not wiped out some of the GOP’s own candidates during primary season. In several key states, activists championed extremely right-wing candidates for the Senate, including Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and Ken Buck in Colorado, whose losses probably cost McConnell his Senate majority—for now.
It hasn’t gotten much attention, but there is also an ideological question of whether the strategy that he has pursued serves the best interest of the conservative cause. Just before the president signed the health-care-reform law, the former Bush speechwriter David Frum lit into his party’s leadership for not negotiating harder to align the law with conservative principles. “What McConnell did was a brilliant tactical success,” Frum told me. “But our job is to be conservators of the Reagan Revolution. The new law increases the Medicare payroll tax and increases the tax on investment income, which kills job creation and investment. That could have been changed with a handshake last year. Now it will require the House, the Senate, and a Republican president. We may benefit politically in the short term, but Democrats get a new entitlement program, which is the better end of the deal.” Frum added that this is the problem inherent in any strategy of outright disengagement: “McConnell is like a conservative in a Victorian novel, who believes that change is necessarily for the worse, and therefore must be blocked. But change comes anyway. So you have to plan for it and make sure it happens on terms that you regard as acceptable.”
Beyond this lies the fundamental question of whether a party has any responsibility to address society’s problems in good faith. So far, McConnell’s legacy as Republican leader is to have taken his caucus further than anyone else toward the proposition that it doesn’t. But the public is not likely to notice that anytime soon.
American politics over the next two years will be far less preoccupied with legislation and much more focused on a great clash of social visions about the efficacy and desirability of government. For the past two years, McConnell has been winning the argument that Obama and the Democrats have essentially ceded, about the value and meaning of the policies they fought so hard to pass. Much of the electorate, and the media too, has come to accept the basic outlines of the worldview that McConnell expounded in Beattyville.
John Boehner and the Republican House will be free to pass all sorts of bills designed to bedevil the White House. But how effective that strategy is will ultimately depend on what happens to the bills in the Senate. However things play out on television, McConnell will still be the key man.
But he’ll have the constant headache of his party’s right wing. McConnell’s nemesis is no Democrat but Senator Jim DeMint, the self-aggrandizing South Carolina conservative who campaigned for many of the Tea Party candidates who disrupted GOP primaries—including in Kentucky, where Rand Paul embarrassed McConnell by soundly defeating his choice to fill an open Senate seat. Activists like DeMint and Paul are already giving McConnell fits, by focusing their ire on the practical apparatus of politics—party committees, earmarks, patronage—that McConnell prizes and that wins campaigns. And McConnell is not the sort to submit quietly to tests of his purity. When I asked him whether he would vote for the bailout if he had it to do over again, he replied, “Based on what we knew then, yes.”
On the other hand, McConnell will also have more room to maneuver. The new Senate has more Republicans, but also a large number of “in cycle” Democrats—those up for reelection in 2012—from red or reddish states like Montana, Nebraska, Florida, and West Virginia, who won’t want to be seen as the president’s handmaidens.
Someone with McConnell’s distinct talents and willingness to go to extremes ought to thrive in these circumstances. The legislative imperative has been subordinated to the larger task of shaping the public’s opinion of the opposition in advance of the presidential election. Last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned campaign-finance limits and unleashed a flood of corporate money into campaigns, will only help him. Politics as war: that’s what will occupy McConnell, and all of Washington, in 2011.
“When I came to the Senate,” Bennett told me, “Bob Dole was the leader, and he was superb. Absolutely on top of his game, on top of the institution. Nobody approached Dole. It’s a very different Senate today, very different political atmosphere. Dole would be deeply frustrated. McConnell is the right guy for this atmosphere. McConnell, in this circumstance, is approaching Dole’s capacity to dominate events. These are very different times. But he’s a very different man.”