Mitch McConnell, a Politician in Full

The Senate majority leader dismisses purists and relives his biggest victories in a new memoir that offers clues to his reluctant embrace of Donald Trump.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Mitch McConnell didn’t want Donald Trump to be the Republican standard-bearer any more than Paul Ryan did. After all, the pair could not be more different in personality and style. McConnell cherishes the very rules, decorum, and tradition that Trump flouts at every turn. Where the unvarnished Trump speaks without a filter, the Senate majority leader is coolly calculating, choosing his public utterances as carefully as anyone this side of the Vatican. Yet unlike his counterpart in the House speaker’s office, McConnell didn’t agonize for a month over whether to endorse the presumptive nominee. He ripped the Band-Aid off the day after Trump clinched his victory, endorsing him with a terse statement that sounded like an election-night concession speech.

To understand why McConnell chose to bow quickly to the inevitable, to simply get it over with, look to his new memoir, The Long Game. You won’t actually find Trump’s name in its 278 pages; in fact, McConnell barely mentions any of the Republicans who ran for president this year, a conscious omission that was made, in all likelihood, because he was finishing the manuscript while the outcome of the primaries remained in doubt. But in the book, McConnell comes through as a proud politician whose loyalties lie with the Republican Party more than a conservative ideology and as a man who has always relished strategy and tactics over the particulars of policy. If Ryan wants people to see him as earnest, McConnell is fine if they merely see him as shrewd. He’s no idealist, and he has little use for purists. And if the taciturn Kentuckian shares anything with the voluble New Yorker who now leads his party, it’s that they both love nothing more than victory and, in their own way, making sure you know how they won.

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.

McConnell may be more politician than policy maker, but he describes a number of principled stands he took throughout his career. First and foremost is his support for civil rights, which went against the prevailing opinion in Kentucky for decades. He writes that he voted for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964 over Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and he later stood up to the Reagan administration’s support for the apartheid regime in South Africa.

McConnell’s political mentor was the late Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper, who also supported civil rights. Cooper, McConnell wrote, was a practitioner of Edmund Burke’s approach to democracy, in which elected representatives should follow their own judgment and not simply cater to the views of the people who elected them. McConnell cites that philosophy in describing his opposition to a constitutional amendment to ban the burning of the American flag, which had popular support but which McConnell came to believe would infringe on the First Amendment. “I was not willing to cherry-pick on the issue, arguing that political speech should be protected while offensive speech should be limited,” he writes. “Speech is speech, and it’s certainly not the role of government to decide what is offensive and what is not.”

How, then, does McConnell approach the candidacy of Trump? On one hand, Trump routinely violates the one rule of Republican politics that McConnell seems to hold above all others. “I had no respect or tolerance for people who had not, it seemed, learned the simple lesson my mother taught me as a child: never try to make yourself look good or important by making others look bad,” he writes. “As a Republican, short of setting yourself on fire, there is no better way to draw attention to yourself than to criticize fellow Republicans.” He is referring to the conservatives, like Jim DeMint, and renegades, like Chuck Hagel, who regularly undercut his leadership in the Senate, but it’s also a perfectly apt description of Trump’s rhetorical style.

McConnell endorsed Trump quickly after the last of his rivals dropped out of the presidential race. But he hasn’t hesitated to criticize his tone or his more outlandish statements in the weeks since. He has said Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is a “very bad idea,” and he similarly denounced Trump’s criticism of New Mexico’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez. McConnell’s priority in 2016 is, and has always been, preserving the Republican majority in the Senate and, by extension, his job as majority leader. He didn’t spend a lifetime working to win the post only to lose it after two years. McConnell has personally triumphed in years when Republicans nominated lackluster presidential candidates—in 1996, when Bill Clinton easily defeated Bob Dole, and in 2008, when Obama topped John McCain. McConnell writes in the book that he knew McCain was going to lose nearly two months before the election, when Obama outclassed him in a meeting with President Bush on the rapidly unfolding financial crisis.

Back in February, The New York Times reported that McConnell told fellow Republican senators that they would drop Trump “like a hot rock” to hold their majority. He hasn’t repeated that statement in public, but he never denied making it in private. In interviews on tour promoting his book, McConnell has said the election will be a choice “between two very unpopular candidates” and that he worries Trump could permanently alienate Latino voters from the GOP in the same way that Goldwater caused black voters to bolt from the party. He has also begun making the case that a Republican Senate could serve as a check on Trump and prevent him from abusing power or doing any real damage to the country.

So why back Trump at all? McConnell clearly has strong doubts about his ability to win, not to mention his temperament and policies. And he has argued that Trump is not a bellwether of the GOP’s demise but an aberration, a blip on the party’s ascendancy that McConnell is helping to lead. “I think in this particular election, Republican primary voters were looking for an outsider,” he told NPR. “I don’t agree with Donald Trump on everything, and I don’t think the Trump nomination is going to redefine in any real way what America’s right-of-center party stands for. We will have agreements. We will have disagreements.” Trump, then, is just another short-term challenge in McConnell’s “long game.”

As for Ryan and many other top Republicans, this awkward dance with Trump—supporting his candidacy but not his many outrageous statements—has proved difficult for McConnell to pull off. On Sunday, he told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he “couldn’t disagree more” with Trump’s statement that Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage created a conflict in the lawsuit against Trump University. But he dodged three times when Todd asked him if Trump’s statement was racist. “I think the party of Lincoln wants to win the White House,” McConnell said, pivoting to his political comfort zone. “The right-of-center world needs to respect the fact that the primary voters have spoken.”

McConnell’s other option was to disavow Trump entirely, to uphold the Burkean maxim that he should follow his own judgment even if it contradicts the will of Republican voters. There’s another clue to why he didn’t in the book, and it goes back, again, to Goldwater. McConnell writes that he couldn’t vote for Goldwater in a principled stand against his opposition to civil rights, but he adds a few sentences later, “Given what unfolded, I would come to regret this vote more than any I’d ever cast.” McConnell viewed the expansion of government under LBJ’s Great Society as a disaster and his war on poverty as a failure. In the years and decades ahead, the budding politician would more often turn to pragmatism, party loyalty, and shrewd deal making over a rigid adherence to idealism. In 2016, those priorities translate into an arms-length—and potentially short-lived—alliance with Trump.