Tampa, Fla. — Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky can’t have had a very pleasant time over the past week, with Todd Akin apparently throwing away a winnable seat in Missouri, but he is still hopeful about taking control of the Senate.
“At this point, the less said the better,” McConnell tells National Review Online, when asked about events in the Show Me State. “Hopefully, that will revert to a winnable situation.”
McConnell, the Senate GOP leader since 2007, has his eye on a handful of other races, including some contests in blue states, as he evaluates the electoral landscape. In contrast to 2010, he says, this year Republicans haven’t made big mistakes in their primaries. He cites Nevada as an example. Maybe Harry Reid wasn’t going to lose to anyone in 2010, he observes, but he “sure wasn’t going to lose to Sharron Angle.” This time, outside of Akin, “We haven’t nominated a single unelectable candidate,” he says.
To win the four seats necessary to get to 51 seats, McConnell believes that some combination of these states’ Senate races will have to go red: North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, and Ohio. And though they aren’t getting much attention, he says the Republican contenders in Hawaii and Connecticut may be competitive.
From George Allen in Virginia to Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, a slate of veteran, savvy conservatives on the ballot will benefit Republicans, McConnell says. Rick Berg of North Dakota and Deb Fischer of Nebraska are also on his radar as sharp but less well-known candidates who are poised to win. “Linda Lingle in Hawaii, she has a real shot,” McConnell says. “She is a uniquely gifted political figure. She’s kind of like Scott Brown, who is the Bryce Harper, or maybe even Mike Trout, of American politics — a natural.”
The economy, McConnell says, remains the critical issue in those states, and though entitlements have come to the fore in the past month, he is not worried about having that debate. Mitt Romney’s pick of Representative Paul Ryan for the vice-presidential spot, he contends, has bolstered the GOP argument.
“If you want to have a debate about Medicare, bring it on,” McConnell says. “They are the only people who have voted to cut Medicare, so we will talk about what [Democrats] have done to Medicare today, not how Medicare has to change in the future in order to be saved. We’ll talk about what they did, now, and I think we can fight that to a draw, maybe even win that fight.”
“In fact, I believe we already have fought it to a draw,” McConnell says. “Then we can shift the election back to the economy, and how Romney has spent his lifetime fixing things.”
Should Republicans win the Senate majority, McConnell says, expectations, especially on the right, should take history into account. “We have never had more than 55 Republicans for the past 100 years,” he says. “We have never had the kind of hammerlock on government that [Democrats] had during the New Deal, during the Great Society, and from 2009 to 2010.”
“Now, it’d be wonderful to some day have the amount of control over the government that they’ve had on numerous occasions,” McConnell chuckles. “But having said that, there are things that you can do with a simple majority.” He lists passing a budget and axing the health-care law’s individual mandate through budget reconciliation as two immediate legislative items that a Republican majority could achieve early next year.
“If I’m the majority leader instead of Harry Reid, repealing Obamacare is job one,” McConnell says. “Through the budget process, with a willing chief executive, there are things that we can do. It would be nice to have a greater amount of support in the Senate, but I still think we can move the country in a different direction, even with the narrowest of majorities.”
And procedurally, McConnell sees himself as the anti-Reid. If the Kentuckian won the majority, he would not wait years to pass a budget, as Reid has done. “The way he is running the Senate is a disgrace,” McConnell says of his counterpart across the aisle. “The law requires you to pass a budget — not when you choose to, but every year. And this year, we won’t pass a single appropriation bill, which is the basic work of government, or a defense-authorization act for the first time in half a century.”
Asked whether a GOP majority would change the scoring rules at the Congressional Budget Office, so they take account of dynamic growth effects, he says Republicans would be “inclined to defer to Ryan,” whom he obviously hopes will be vice president next year.
Should Obama win reelection, McConnell expects more of the same from the Illinois Democrat, who he calls a “terrible” president. Over the past two years during divided government, Republicans have offered numerous concessions during negotiations on the debt, including revenue increases, only to have their olive branches refused. “I can’t psychoanalyze the guy, but he would need to have an epiphany,” McConnell says.
“This administration believes that if you’re making a profit, you’re up to no good,” McConnell says, shaking his head, relating the story of a businessman who has seen his company subjected to onerous federal regulations. “To them, you’re either cheating your customers or mistreating your employees, or both, and they’re here to help you.”
McConnell’s biggest disappointment of the past two years, and perhaps his career, is Obama’s unwillingness to broker a bipartisan deal on entitlements. “He missed the opportunity that both Reagan and Clinton took, to do big stuff in the middle,” McConnell says, pulling a metal pen out of his coat pocket and holding it in front of NR’s editors. “Divided government isn’t an excuse for not doing big things, but it does require the one person who can sign something into law to participate.”
Vice President Biden, McConnell says, may have been able to help Obama craft a compromise, but it seems the president wasn’t interested in using his veep, a longtime senator from Delaware, for that purpose. “Joe would admit that he is gaffe prone, but he is still a smart guy,” McConnell says. “He is actually a pretty good broker for them, kind of how Cheney was the Senate guy for [George W.] Bush.” But over the past four years, Biden hasn’t had much room to maneuver. “Joe would have been a good person to deal with,” he says. “Biden knows the players, but Biden is not a free agent. He’s not running around out there, freelancing on policy.”
“With the exception of the tax deal, [Obama] has been a rigid ideologue,” McConnell says, even though cutting a deal on entitlements “would have made him look good, politically.” That said, Obama is a “skillful political leader,” McConnell says. “That’s why he is hanging in there. Anyone else with his record would be on his way out the door.”
“Worst-case scenario? We still have the House, I’m the leader of a robust minority in the Senate, and he’s still there, and he can’t do anything more like he did in ’09 and ’10,” McConnell says. “But to do anything other than point fingers at each other for four years, he is going to have to come to a different place.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.