Magazine | January 24, 2011, Issue

Master of the Senate

Mitch McConnell (AP)
Mitch McConnell gets the job done

Mitch McConnell would not smile. The rest of the crowd, full of big-name Democrats and liberal activists, nodded and cracked grins as Vice President Joe Biden quoted Edmund Burke, the famed Anglo-Irish statesman, on the nature of compromise. But McConnell, the purse-lipped Senate GOP leader, remained still, unmoved by Biden’s invocation of a favorite conservative philosopher.

Days before, Biden and McConnell had crafted an agreement to extend Bush-era tax rates for two years. Now, on a frigid December afternoon, the pair was standing on a dais in the first-floor auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. As Biden playfully cited Burke, McConnell wondered why the White House seemed so keen to celebrate the deal, along with the rest of their lame-duck maneuvers.

President Obama, the next speaker, heaped on more praise, hailing the deal as a significant bipartisan achievement and, more subtly, as a game-changing moment for his administration. Obama then strolled to a small table nearby to sign the bill, swarmed and cheered by Democratic allies. McConnell simply looked on, stone-faced.

To the five-term Kentucky Republican, the whole scene was a tad bewildering. For McConnell, what matters in a deal is what you give and what you get — the coldblooded count of concessions versus gains — not how it is brokered. The misty-eyed fixation by the White House and the press corps on the process of negotiations missed the point — and the score.

“I was amused at the mainstream media trying to declare the president the ‘comeback kid’ at the end of the lame duck,” McConnell tells me in an interview over the holiday break. Sure, he acknowledges, the president was able to help cut a tax deal, ratify the New START treaty, and repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality. But the fuss being made over this string of accomplishments, he says, is excessive.

The arms pact and “don’t ask” repeal, McConnell argues, both “would have passed” at any point last year. He also swats back the creeping conventional wisdom that Republicans caved at the last minute. “More noteworthy,” he says, “was the fact that we got the president — in a move eerily reminiscent of [George H. W. Bush’s] decision to go back on his pledge of ‘Read my lips, no new taxes’ — to sign a bill extending the current tax rates for two more years, something he had demonized and run against for several years.”

A day earlier, McConnell had defeated Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s 2,000-page, $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, after cajoling nine GOP appropriators off the fence and into opposing the bill. “That was a clear indication that power was shifting already as a result of the November election,” McConnell observes. “Now we get to determine how the spending will be done for the balance of the fiscal year. And we’ve settled the tax-rate question for two years.”

#page#For McConnell, decoupling taxes from spending was crucial — enabling Republicans to “concentrate exclusively on spending reductions, without having that linked to tax cuts” in coming months. “It’s a distinct advantage for us,” he says.

Whatever comes next, you can count on the 68-year-old McConnell to play a starring role. He has the potential to become a Great Compromiser, like Henry Clay, the august Kentucky legislator from two centuries ago whose desk he now occupies; a feared, sharp-elbowed partisan; or, perhaps most likely, a combination of the two. As he begins to manage his newly grown, diverse conference, which includes tea-party freshmen along with Yankee moderates, McConnell becomes an even more pivotal figure in Washington.

Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been enraptured by the upper chamber — its byzantine rules, its heroic ghosts — for decades. Born and raised in Alabama, where he overcame a tough bout with polio, he moved to a middle-class section of South Louisville at age 13. As an undergraduate at the University of Louisville in the early 1960s, he became active in campus politics, serving as student-body president. He tells me that he paid close attention to the Senate from afar, reading about and debating its happenings with classmates. For a young man interested in national politics, the Senate was the center of the universe.

“In those days, John Kennedy had just been elected president,” McConnell says. “He had defeated Richard Nixon, who was a former senator. The Senate was thought of as a launching ground for national aspirations.” It was, he says, an “endlessly fascinating place, with people that you saw in the news — Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield. All of those giants were around.”

So it was no surprise that, in the summer of 1964, after graduating with honors, McConnell made his way to Washington. He was pleased to have secured an internship in the office of Sen. John Sherman Cooper, the venerable Kentucky Republican, cross-aisle friend of JFK, and supporter of civil rights.

Up close, McConnell studied how senators interacted, debated, and socialized — figuring out who led and who followed. He realized, early on, that “the Senate is a different kind of institution — designed on purpose to not do things quickly, to force consensus.”

After the internship concluded, McConnell trekked to the University of Kentucky’s college of law, where he took a degree in 1967. For the ambitious young attorney, there were many options post-graduation, but his taste for Senate life remained strong. He promptly moved back east, this time for a full-time legislative-staff position in the office of Sen. Marlow Cook, a Kentucky conservative who would later gain notice — along with Sen. James L. Buckley of New York and others — for urging President Nixon to resign as the  Watergate scandal deepened.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the current chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and a longtime friend of the GOP leader, says that by 1969, McConnell had made a lasting impression on numerous Senate staffers and Nixon White House aides, as well as Sen. Howard Baker, who would later become Senate majority leader.

#page# “Senator Baker said to me that ‘you ought to meet Marlow Cook’s young legislative assistant; he’s a smart young man and I think you’d like him.’ That was Mitch McConnell,” Alexander says. McConnell, he reminds us, was not only a top-notch staffer, but a master student of the Senate: Within a few short years, two U.S. senators from Kentucky had become his mentors.

A post in the Ford administration as deputy assistant attorney general followed. Next came an extended stint as a judge-executive in Jefferson County, where he served until his election to the Senate in 1984, when he topped two-term Democratic incumbent Dee Huddleston by a razor-thin margin. That first victory, swept along by the Reagan tide, was hard-fought: McConnell, in a memorable series of ads featuring bloodhounds, chided Huddleston for skipping votes while he appeared on the speaking circuit. He pleaded with voters to “switch to Mitch.” It worked.

Once McConnell was back in the ornate chamber, this time as senator, his youthful memories came rushing back, as did lessons learned. But he was not immediately a star.

Retiring senator Kit Bond of Missouri fondly remembers those days in the late 1980s, when he, McConnell, and David Karnes of Nebraska sat together in the back corner of the last row. “Mitch labeled us, at the time, the Not Ready for Primetime Players,” he says.

Over time, as he rose from lowly foreign-relations-committee member to ethics-committee chairman, National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman to whip, and then to the leader’s spot in late 2006, McConnell came to view Senate leadership as an art, akin to the work of a “choir director trying to get everybody to sing out of the same hymnbook.” Listening, he says, for all of its clichéd simplicity, became his greatest tool.

“Listening is the best quality somebody in my job needs to have,” McConnell says. “I’m in the midst of a bunch of very smart people — all a bunch of class-president types, all smart, or they wouldn’t have made it that far in American politics. They’ve all got something important to say. If you’re going to be a leader of a bunch of leaders, you better be a good listener.”

On and off the floor, McConnell is a picture of placidity — the clammed-up moue, propped between hound-dog cheeks, comes easy and often. But his blue-gray eyes, framed by George Will–style spectacles, are darting spotlights. A slight glance can stop a pesky staffer or wayward senator cold.

Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, a smirking freshman Democrat, experienced the McConnell treatment in August when he was caught mocking the GOP leader’s solemn speech on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Franken, whose rubber-faced routines made him a comic star in the 1980s, groaned and gasped as McConnell spoke. After clicking off his microphone, an irritated McConnell approached Franken. “This isn’t Saturday Night Live, Al,” he said coolly. A chastened Franken promptly apologized, publicly and privately, and hasn’t made much noise since.

Capitol Hill reporters, who loiter in the marble halls outside the chamber, often chuckle about McConnell’s poker face. In his oratory, his gravelly, evenly paced southern drawl rarely rises above a low simmer. His walk and talk are also slow and hushed — plodding, dignified, and oft-unnoticed. In almost every sense, he has no “tell,” as they say at the card table.

#page#Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, an easygoing conservative, says he admires McConnell but wouldn’t mind a bit more joviality in GOP dealings. Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator, “was, frankly, more of my style,” Inhofe says. “He had more of a sense of humor.” McConnell “is aggressive and gets things done. He’s very similar to Trent Lott — the same effectiveness, but not as entertaining.”

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate as GOP whip, says that’s part of McConnell’s appeal inside GOP circles — that he prefers serious persuasion over backslapping ingratiation. “Our friendship has grown, but he and I would not be natural buddies, per se, in the Senate, if we were not working as closely as we do,” he says.

Other McConnell confidants say much of his manner comes from his old-school reserve, forged at the feet of the institution’s past masters. Others believe that it is strategic — in a 24/7 media age, one must be careful, and on alert, at all times. Harry Reid, a colleague adds, appears to follow a similar approach, according to which one would rather be icy than in hot water.

All of this has a purpose, says retiring senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. McConnell, he tells me, “has an intuitive sense of the Senate” and knows the institution’s limits. Never-ending sessions of observing, listening, and pitching senators on bills, whether perched near the cloakroom or in his Capitol office, are more than somber posturing to McConnell, says Gregg: They’re the only way to get things done in a chaotic chamber; to become, with little fanfare, the center of gravity.

“He is sort of like [hockey player] Bobby Orr, who knew where the puck was going before the person passed it,” Gregg says. “That’s the way Mitch is: He sees things long before others do, understands what’s coming, and positions his membership to deal with issues as they arrive.”

The only place where McConnell appears to loosen up, ever so slightly, is on the Senate floor. That is his home away from home — where he consoles and inquires, twists arms, and counts noses. “I’ve always got a to-do list of things I’ve got to talk to various members about,” McConnell says. “Some of the most useful time I spend is going around from one member to another. It’s an opportunity to be accessible, without going through the formality of scheduling a meeting. It’s extremely productive and important.”

On rare occasions, McConnell’s familiarity with the floor can get the best of his emotions. In mid-December, as retiring senators delivered their farewell speeches, McConnell took to the podium to speak about Gregg. As he made his way through his address, he began to choke up. “When Judd walks out of this chamber . . . when he walks out of this chamber for the last time, he’ll leave an enormous void behind,” McConnell said, coughing away the catch in his voice.

#page#McConnell sees his low-key mien simply as an outgrowth of “focus,” a prominent word in his vernacular, and what he calls the “single most important attribute any leader — not just in politics, but in any profession — can possess.” In politics, he says, “there are all kinds of things coming at you that are unanticipated every day, and that’s certainly true in my job. But if you focus on the things you are trying to achieve, and don’t get distracted by all of the other things that are happening all around you, including the completely unpredictable, which occurs so frequently, you’ve got a much better chance of succeeding.”

Focus, McConnell notes, also includes the ability to deal with the political reality as it is, instead of as one wishes it to be. In late January 2009, days after the Obama inauguration, McConnell addressed the National Press Club and offered an olive branch to the new president. Now the top Republican inside the Beltway, McConnell wanted to outline his hopes for the upcoming session — and set the stakes.

“Make no mistake: Some of our new president’s proposals will be met with strong, principled resistance from me and from others,” McConnell said. “But many of his ambitions show real potential for bipartisan cooperation.”

This rhetoric had the shelf life of a milk carton. McConnell says that within days, when the administration began to push for a near-trillion-dollar “stimulus” package, he realized that, regrettably, Democrats, with their two-chamber majority and a popular new president, were in no mood to play ball with Republicans.

“I think learning to work in the Senate requires you to take a different measure of what success is,” McConnell says, reflecting upon the past two years. “Frequently it is not passing things, but preventing really unfortunate things from happening.”

The relationship between Obama and McConnell became chilly. As the ambitious new president, riding high in the polls, worked to pump billions toward state coffers, unions, and various public-works projects, McConnell decided to shift. He says that he recognized that behind the president’s cheery, bipartisan rhetoric lay a bare-knuckle progressive fighter — a force that demanded an able opposition.

In policy lunches and closed-door meetings, McConnell urged his “diminished band” to work to defeat the Obama agenda “to the maximum extent possible.” On the stimulus vote in February, three Republicans broke with McConnell’s stance against the measure — Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, plus Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who soon switched parties. That fight was but an appetizer, and the president soon moved to begin work on passing a massive, national health-care program stuffed with mandates and spending demands.

“We needed to make sure the American people knew that everybody in Washington didn’t think that this was the direction we ought to take,” McConnell says. “Only if the American people understood that this was not something that was ‘bipartisan’ would they have an opportunity to understand the differences, and, hopefully, still prove to be a right-of-center country and make a mid-course correction.”

#page#Herding together his caucus in 2009 wasn’t easy, especially as Obama, with charisma and savvy, huddled with GOP moderates on health care, trying to sway them to his side. “I’m really proud of my members’ staying together,” McConnell says. “It was particularly difficult on health care. There was endless effort, month after month after month, by the president and others to pick off anybody they could get, so they could give that awful health-care bill a patina of bipartisanship.”

McConnell, his colleagues say, did not shy away from whipping the health-care vote hard, making every effort to ensure that his bloc would hold. By Christmas Eve 2009, when the bill finally reached the Senate floor, Democrats were able to pass it only by a 60-to-39 party-line vote. “Not a single [Republican], in the end, found that enticing,” McConnell says. “From Olympia Snowe to Jim DeMint, we had 100 percent opposition. The American people knew where we stood.”

With Republicans having gained a majority in the House and new life in the Senate, McConnell sees 2011 as an ample opportunity for the GOP, not only to work to repeal aspects of the Obama agenda, but to chart a new course for the party, away from its past spending excesses. But as a longtime securer of earmarks, and a pal of the Senate’s old bulls, he knows that change, albeit important, will most likely come slowly. If the House, under new GOP speaker John Boehner, passes a flurry of bills, Senate Republicans may have to throw cold water on any over-the-top aspirations, all while fighting for a version of the same policy.

Still, McConnell says, conservatives should not worry. Senate Republicans, he says, are prepared to make the most of coming months. He looks forward to seeing others help in articulating the message, too, from DeMint, the firebrand conservative from South Carolina, to rising freshmen and ranking committee members. Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), for example, are often mentioned as potential leaders on the entitlement debate, should both sides choose to move forward.

“There are active inside players and more prominent outside players,” McConnell says. Playing the role of choir director–cum–leader means one has to share the spotlight — and the music. When senators speak out against leadership positions, “I don’t find it a bother,” McConnell asserts. “I don’t view our conference as a zero-sum game, in other words, if somebody becomes more prominent, somebody becomes less prominent. We have 47 independent contractors doing their own thing, to the best of their ability. I’m not a dictator.” His job, he declares, is “all carrot and no stick.”

And this year, those carrots — the rhetorical kind — could be proffered to his colleagues across the aisle: Twenty-one Democrats and two independents who caucus with them are up for reelection in 2012. “That’s the wild card,” McConnell says. “How do those, especially from redder states, want to position themselves?”

#page#As for President Obama, he will be forced to “pivot” if he wants to accomplish anything on the Hill. “Let’s just discuss some things that we can actually do with this guy,” McConnell responds, when I press him to expand on the scope of his hopes. “Look, if he’s willing to honor the results of the election, and do things that we would do anyway, which is what happened on the tax bill, why would we say no?”

“If he’s willing to engage in significant entitlement reform, we’ll be there to help him,” McConnell says. And as a student of history, he is more than aware that such cross-party collaboration is politically feasible for both sides, if structured with care.

“Reagan and Tip O’Neill did the last Social Security fix in 1983,” McConnell recalls. “I was running in 1984 and the subject never even came up. The reason it didn’t even come up was because it was a bipartisan deal. In fact, the best thing about divided government is that it is the time you are most likely to be able to achieve entitlement reform.” McConnell pauses. “Now, will the president do it? We will see. Should he? Absolutely.”

McConnell’s political genius over the last two years, his colleagues say, was realizing that the GOP’s growth had to be built around united fights against unpopular bills, not a rebranding or a recalibrated message. As William White, the longtime Senate chronicler, once said, “There are not many times when a Senate leader can afford to ‘get tough.’” McConnell, his colleagues say, has mastered that balance, after a lifetime of study of the Senate that began one summer years ago in the office of Sen. John Sherman Cooper.

McConnell is already planning to run for reelection in 2014, when he’ll be 72. The Senate life is not just a job, but a calling. In 2006, Teddy Kennedy traveled to the University of Louisville, where McConnell had established a center for leadership studies. Kennedy, another avid student of Senate history, wistfully noted in an address to students that McConnell’s mentor, Senator Cooper, “was a giant,” and an unlikely, but valued, partner on many issues with his brother, Jack.

“I only wish he hadn’t inspired his young aide Mitch McConnell to work so hard to build the Republican party here,” Kennedy laughed. McConnell smiled.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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