As memoirs go, The Long Game is fairly conventional and not all that revealing. McConnell shares a few anecdotes from his interactions with presidents (George W. Bush comes off as pretty funny), settles a few scores (former Senator Jim DeMint, watch your back), and lays bare his contempt for a trio of Democrats—Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Al Gore. McConnell’s low regard for Obama and Reid has become well-known in recent years, and the book adds only a few details to stories that he or others have already told. He titled one chapter “Professor Obama” and complained that the president would drone on for so long during phone calls and meetings that the discussions would become a waste of time.
He’s no different in private than in public. He’s like the kid in your class who exerts a hell of a lot of effort making sure everyone thinks he’s the smartest one in the room. He talks down to people, whether in a meeting with colleagues at the White House or addressing the nation.
McConnell claims that reports of his personal dislike for Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, are overstated. But his description of him in his book suggests otherwise. He calls Reid “bombastic and unreasonable” and at one point in 2011, he said he refused to continue negotiating with him over the debt ceiling and turned instead to Vice President Joe Biden. “Harry is rhetorically challenged,” McConnell writes. “If a scalpel will work, he picks up a meat-ax.”
McConnell reserves some his sharpest barbs for Gore. The former vice president, he wrote, “has the personality of a cardboard box”—a harsh assessment coming from a senator not exactly known for his charisma. He likened the 2000 presidential recount in Florida to “watching Gore try to become the Tonya Harding of American politics.”
Yet where McConnell is most candid is in his straightforward embrace of politics for politics’ sake and his unapologetic acknowledgement that he, like so many of his colleagues, is driven by personal ambition as much as any idealistic desire to do good. “The truth is that very few of us expect to be at the center of world-changing events when we first file for office, and personal ambition usually has a lot more to do with it than most of us are willing to admit,” he writes. “That was certainly true for me, and I never saw the point in pretending otherwise.” When McConnell got into politics, he wanted to win, and he wanted to get to the top—in his case, by becoming Senate majority leader. Politicians often refer to “the long game” to spin their short-term defeats, but McConnell makes a decent case for why his patient, plodding efforts to pick his fights and accumulate power over time helped him accomplish his dream.
Policy takes a backseat to campaign politics and legislative maneuvering throughout the book. If there’s any issue that truly animates McConnell, it is opposing campaign-finance reform as an affront to the First Amendment protection of free speech. Yet the victory in which he takes the most pride was how he conceived of an obscure parliamentary maneuver to scuttle a Democratic reform bill in 1994. It wasn’t really the outcome that excited McConnell; it was how he displayed his mastery of Senate rules and won the notice of his colleagues, who would soon begin electing him to leadership positions in the party. The same was true in his description of the GOP’s fight against Obamacare in 2009 and 2010. The result for the country, as Republicans saw it, was an enormous defeat. But McConnell portrayed it as a victory for the party and for him personally, since he was able to maintain total GOP opposition to the bill and set the stage for the party’s retaking of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections. That Republicans were unable to repeal the bill and get the policy off the books seemed to matter less.