How Mitch McConnell Lost His Soul: a Tragedy (for the Country) in 24 Quotes
This man once fought for abortion rights and gun control. Then he needed to win elections in rural Kentucky.
Everything below is taken from “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell,” by Alec MacGillis, which is a quick read, and recommended, for anyone who cares about the future of the country:
- In 1964, McConnell wrote a column urging Republicans to get on board with strong civil rights legislation. He disputed the claim to constitutional rationales against the legislation:“One must view the Constitution as a document adaptable to conditions of contemporary society,” he wrote, and any “strict interpretation” was “innately evil” if its result was that “basic rights are denied to any group.”
- In the 1970s, he actually declined an honorary membership in the Kentucky State Rifle & Pistol Association: “This would probably hinder effectiveness in fighting [strict gun control] laws,” he said.
- Running for Judge-Executive of Jefferson County, Kentucky in 1975, he told the unions that he would support passing a state law to legalize collective bargaining for public employees. The labor council endorsed him.
- With Roe v. Wade only a few years old, abortion opponents tried to rein in the procedure via local ordinances that, among other restrictions, required married women to get their husbands' approval. Abortion rights supporters had an ally in McConnell: every time one of the ordinances was introduced, McConnell would see to it that it never came up for a vote, says Jessica Loving, who was then the director of the Kentucky chapter of the ACLU. “He just stopped the legislation dead in its tracks,” she says. “Mitch understood procedural ways to stop legislation, and that's what he did.”
- Frustrated with how close he'd come to losing his reelection, McConnell decided it was time for a new media and polling team. In 1984, running for U.S. Senate, he hired Roger Ailes.
- When Ronald Reagan came to Louisville for one of his debates against Mondale, the president referred to the candidate for U.S. Senate as “O'Donnell.”
- At the 1984 Republican victory party, Gene Snyder, McConnell's first boss in Washington, was overheard remarking with wry wonderment that Kentuckians had just elected someone to the U.S. Senate who had fewer friends in Kentucky than “anybody elected to anything.”
- To the dismay of Jessica Loving and his other abortion rights allies in Louisville, McConnell flipped to the pro-life side on votes such as blocking Medicaid funding for abortions in cases of rape or incest. Years later, Loving ran into McConnell at a cocktail party and told him, “By the way, I've never properly thanked you for what you did—you were the best elected official for the pro-choice issue,” to which, she recalls, “he got this pained look, his face got paler than usual and his lips got thinner than usual and he said, 'You know, I don't really want anyone to know that.'”
- McConnell fought against expanding voter participation by allowing citizens to register to vote when getting their driver's license. McConnell was candid about his reasons for opposing the “Motor Voter” bill: expanded voter registration helped Democrats.
- With money at his disposal, McConnell would set about countering voters' lukewarm feelings toward him by making his opponents unacceptable. And he would make them unacceptable in the same way: he would cast them as elitists out of touch with working-class Kentuckians—even if it meant attacking wealth and success in business in ways that made Republicans uncomfortable.
- He was, by his 1996 race, a wealthy man from his marriage in 1993 to Elaine Chao, the daughter of a Taiwanese shipping magnate.
- He warned any and all opponents, “I will always be well financed, and I'll be well financed early.”
- Former senator Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican who served alongside McConnell for 12 years, says this avidity was one of the most striking characteristics of McConnell. “When you raise the flag and somebody hollers from the back of the room, 'Does anyone want to go to a fund-raiser and raise some bucks?' Mitch will be right there,” says Simpson. “It's a joy to him. He gets a twinkle in his eye and his step quickens. I mean, he loves it.”
- As efforts to limit soft money gained momentum late in the decade—led by the bipartisan duo of Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold—the first line of resistance was McConnell. From his new perch as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, he would parry endlessly with the advocates of greater restrictions on soft money who would appear before him at hearings.
- In 2007, after Democrats reclaimed majorities in both chambers in 2006 and Mitch McConnell ascended to become his party's leader in the Senate, the use of the filibuster soared. When Democrats were in the minority under W., there were about 60 “cloture motions” to break or preempt filibusters filed per session. Under McConnell's leadership, cloture motions spiked to 140 per session.
- In the midwinter of 2009, as Barack Obama assumed the presidency and the country was losing 600,000 jobs per month, McConnell assembled his caucus for a retreat in West Virginia and laid out a strategy that focused a whole lot more on undermining the former than addressing the latter.
- Bennett recalls, “Mitch said, 'We have a new president with an approval rating in the seventy percent area. We do not take him on frontally. We find issues where we can win, and we begin to take him down, one issue at a time. We create an inventory of losses, so it's Obama lost on this, Obama lost on that. And we wait for the time where the image has been damaged to the point where we can take him on.”
- McConnell knew how much voters hated partisan strife, that it soured them on government in general, and that this souring would hurt the party in power—particularly if the party in power was also the party that advocated for more government. He knew that the public tended to tune out the details of partisan haggling, and that his party would therefore be unlikely to suffer for blatant reversals such as the flip on the deficit commission. He knew that he not only had Fox News and the rest of the conservative media on his side, but that the mainstream press would be reluctant to enlighten the public about who was at fault for gridlock—many commentators were loath to get into policy particulars, and even more loath to be seen as favoring one side over the other. ... And McConnell knew how much Obama had staked on the promise of transcending partisan divides in Washington, and that denying him the opportunity to do so would come to seem like a defining failure of his presidency.
- “The Obama election reinvigorated Mitch McConnell and gave him a reason for being,” says Kelleher. “He genuinely dislikes him . . . and thinks the guy has no business being in the White House.”
- Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer, Clinton administration trade official, and author of a history of the Senate, argued in a May 2014 opinion piece that the Senate would be functioning better with just about any other Republican in McConnell's place.
- The midterm election of 2014 had been, in a sense, the perfect Mitch McConnell election. It had been dominated by the dark money made possible by the court rulings that McConnell championed—and by his blockage of legislation to require disclosure of the spending. Groups that did not disclose spent more than $215 million, up by more than a third from the 2010 midterm election. More than two-thirds of this undisclosed spending was on behalf of Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
- McConnell himself benefited hugely from this dark money. He received $23 million from outside groups, more than double what his opponent did. Some of the spending was from known entities like the NRA, but the single biggest outside spender was a mysterious group called the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which spent more than $7.5 million on ads attacking his opponent. Because the organization classified itself as a group engaged in “social welfare,” not just elections, it did not need to disclose its donors.
- “Nobody in the state loves him—hell, his friends don't love him. It's not about love,” says Jim Cauley, the consultant who worked on Sloane's and Beshear's challenges.
- “It's always been about power, the political game, and it's never been about the core values that drive political life,” says John Yarmuth, the Democratic congressman from Louisville who used to work with McConnell. “There has never been anything that interested him other than winning elections.”