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.