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.”