Mitch McConnell, Darth Vader

by Robert Costa
The man is not known for making nice with opponents.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has just begun a primary race against Matt Bevin, a Louisville millionaire and conservative activist. It’s shaping up to be one of 2014’s marquee contests. But he doesn’t want to talk about it. Instead, in an interview at his Capitol office with National Review reporters, he keeps moving the conversation toward his Senate work, where he serves as Republican leader.

Eventually, when one of my colleagues presses him again on the primary, McConnell dips his chin and looks coolly at the group. “I’m not going to get into a deep discussion of the campaign,” he says. “I’m really not going to do that today.”

The room falls silent. McConnell has a way of doing that. Unlike most politicians, he doesn’t go out of his way to make nice. His critics have long said his dry manner and impressive grip on power are reminiscent of Darth Vader.

To clear the air, I ask him for one parting thought on his campaign outlook, and McConnell obliges: “My general view is that I don’t have any sense of entitlement, either to the nomination or to the general election. You have to earn it every time, and I was neither surprised nor disappointed [by the emergence of a primary challenger]. I think I’m in a very good position to be the nominee of our party, and I fully expect that to happen.”

The support of Kentucky senator Rand Paul, he adds, a favorite of the Republican party’s libertarian wing, is “particularly important and means a great deal.” He says he’s working closely with his chief strategist, Jesse Benton, who managed Paul’s 2010 Senate campaign, to stay connected with conservatives.

And we leave it there. McConnell turns back to the Senate, to which he was first elected in 1984. When I mention that Senator John McCain might be able to cut a deal with the White House on the upcoming debt limit, due to his warming relations with the president, McConnell demurs. He says McCain is a “national figure with strong opinions,” as well as an influential force within the Republican conference, but he doesn’t think the Arizonan will necessarily be responsible for solving an impasse.

“We don’t have any rules that you don’t talk to any Democrats,” McConnell says, shrugging off McCain’s ballyhooed huddles with Obama officials. “That’s McCain being McCain.” He then cracks a slight smile. “You know, I was kidding [New York Democrat Chuck Schumer] and McCain the other day, and asked, ‘When are you all getting married? It’s getting almost embarrassing.’”

Of course, it’s McConnell, more than anyone, who will be leading the GOP effort at the negotiating table this fall. It was, after all, McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden who came together on a fiscal-cliff compromise earlier this year, and McConnell and Biden who brokered congressional cliffhangers in 2010 and 2011.

Looking ahead, McConnell offers a warning to Democrats: “The tax issue is over.” He says there is no way that Republicans will put tax-rate increases on the table. But he is willing to consider putting changes to sequestration cuts into play in exchange for entitlement reform. He’s also open to reforming the tax code.

“You want sequester relief? Then let’s talk about a reduction in entitlement spending,” McConnell says, previewing his bargaining strategy. “It’s a question of what kind of spending reduction is best for the country, and that’s a framework that could make sense.”

“I think a place to talk is on things like chained CPI,” an adjustment to how Social Security benefits are calculated, “and raising the age for Medicare,” he says. “In return for that, we could trade less spending reduction on the discretionary side, because we all know the biggest challenge is actually not on the discretionary side, but on entitlements. To me, that’s a better place to go in the fall than signaling that you’re open to raising taxes.”

“Liberal Democrats are squirming about sequestration, and the president has been trying to stop it from being implemented all year,” he says. “That, I believe, is what you call leverage.”

On Obamacare, McConnell says Senate Republicans remain committed to fully repealing a law he says is “Europeanizing” the country. But he acknowledges that there is much internal debate over how to do this, and whether a demand for repeal should be tied to a fiscal deal that is crafted later this year. “We’ve been going after it tooth and nail, in every way we can, all along the way,” he says. “Exactly how to achieve that, when you don’t have a Republican Senate or a Republican president, is a vexing problem.”

The future of immigration reform is also hazy. The Gang of Eight’s legislation recently passed the Senate with bipartisan support and now lingers in the House. Many Beltway insiders say the House will probably pass a series of bills and then to go conference with the Senate. But McConnell is far from ready to say that a conference is inevitable. In fact, he says, the divide between the Senate and House over process could easily stop any version of reform from ever reaching President Obama’s desk.

“The Democrats’ insistence on having it be comprehensive is what makes this hard to pass,” he says. “Their goal is clear: to make the folks here legal voters as rapidly as possible. Ideally, what you would do is what the House is trying to do: break it up into pieces and let each piece stand on its own. The reason I’m not optimistic about an acceptable outcome is that I can’t imagine the Senate passing pieces that improve legal immigration, and I can’t envision the House doing comprehensive.”

“I’d prefer a Stephen Douglas approach,” McConnell says, referring to the late Democratic senator’s approach to the Compromise of 1850, in which Douglas ushered a package of separate bills through Congress in order to keep the peace between slave states and free states. He says Douglas’s genius was recognizing that one large, controversial bill can easily sink, but lawmakers can deftly arrange single-issue bills to achieve a similar end.

McConnell pauses and points to a collection of oil paintings on his wall featuring 19th-century political giants, including his own hero, former House speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky. In his monotone drawl, he doubts that Senate Democrats are willing to take any lessons from Clay, Douglas, or the rest.

What about the president? I ask him directly about the status of their working relationship. McConnell deflects and flatly recounts that he saw Obama at the White House last week as the White house celebrated the University of Louisville’s basketball team in the Rose Garden. “He did his homework on the team, and he noted that I was a Louisville graduate, which I appreciated,” he says.

“But beyond basketball?” I ask.

“We have a cordial relationship,” he says. “I don’t have any problem with him personally. I think his administration is doing all of the wrong things, and I oppose him almost always. It’s not a question of personal respect, he’s just in the wrong place on most things, and his administration has done a lot of damage to the country.”

With that, McConnell rests his case. He’s been talking for 45 minutes, far longer than usual, and he’s ready to leave. It’s late on Friday, and soon he’ll be heading home — home to a primary campaign that is already a brawl. McConnell shakes our hands and returns to his private study, off to handle legislative matters.

That relentless work ethic, along with his proven ability to win policy and political battles, may lift him to victory next year. McConnell can be uncomfortably terse, and being Darth Vader makes him a target. But he is, as ever, hard to beat.

— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.