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Mitch McConnell: A Man Without Conviction

June 20, 2017
mcconnell molerat

Mole Rat (left) and Mitch McConnell (right)

What does it say about a man if the crowning achievement of his career is to destroy health care of millions of his countrymen by means of legislation he is crafting in secret. But that’s Mitch McConnell for you–the Mole Rat of the Senate. He labors ceaselessly in the dark, requires little oxygen, and seems to feel neither pain nor shame.

McConnell’s story is one of pursuit of power for its own sake–devoid of any guiding principles save staying in office and rising to the top of a party that rewards such behavior. His legacy is almost exclusively a negative one–destroying what others have built and fighting for corruption in government. He is the perfect man for this era in American politics that is ruled by dark money and corporate and private greed.

More than any other Republican, McConnell devised and led the war of massive and implacable resistance against Barack Obama and is now the most ruthless agent of destruction of Obama’s achievements. Trump may represent the naked id of the Republican party, but McConnell is its cunning and devious ego–and far more effective.

Oddly, however, McConnell has largely evaded the sort of personal loathing by Democrats and other progressives directed at the likes of Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump himself. The press continues to treat him as one of the “adults” in the Senate and even as a relative moderate. Objectively, it’s hard to see why. Perhaps it’s because–unlike Cruz and the Teabaggers–he really isn’t particularly ideological. Or perhaps it’s because he has a thin veneer of patrician Southern gentility–even when telling Elizabeth Warren to shut up and know her place. Or maybe it’s just his nonthreatening physical appearance which resembles an unbaked mass of bread dough that has started to deflate.

McConnell famously told a reporter for the National Journal in October 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” But according to biographer Alec MacGillis, he had outlined the strategy he was to pursue (with considerable success) soon after Obama’s first inauguration. Bob Bennett (an old school Republican who was primaryed by the insurgent Tea Party in 2010) tells it this way:

Mitch said, “We have a new president with an approval rating in the seventy percent area [Obama’s actual popularity at the beginning of his first term]. 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.”

And indeed, the Republicans led by McConnell were able to stymie almost every Obama legislative initiative after the Tea Party wave of 2010. McConnell even killed a bipartisan effort on criminal justice reform and another on immigration reform. The apotheosis of his campaign of Massive Resistance–until now–was his shameless refusal to even hold hearings for Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merritt Garland. That move by an “establishment” figure like McConnell truly signaled that the Republicans had become Bolsheviks and cared nothing for rules, procedural niceties, and customary practices that might impede their agenda. They had the power and would use it.

The one great thing that remained to be smashed was Obamacare. And that is where we are now.

One wonders what really makes Mitch tick. In his own political memoir (“The Long Game”), McConnell says this: “…personal ambition usually has a lot more to do with it than most of us are willing to admit. That was certainly true for me, and I never saw the point in pretending otherwise.” The memoir is mostly silent about ideas or principles or issues. So maybe that’s just it.

There are two recurring themes in McConnell’s story. One is his willing, even eager, embrace of money in politics. The other is his passive willingness to be remolded and repackaged by hired professional political operatives.

On money, McConnell is one of the few politicians who actually seems to like fund raising. Since his early political career, he has actively opposed spending limits on contributions. In his memoir he says, “I never would have been able to win my [first Senate race in 1984] if there had been a limit on the amount of money I could raise and spend.”

As an excellent article in the New York Review of Books by Robert G Kaiser points out, McConnell’s name is not associated with any significant piece of legislation except–and in a completely negative way–the McCain-Feingold bill of 2002 which banned the use of “soft money” from political campaigns. McConnell fiercely opposed the bill and, after it passed, even filed suit in federal court to prevent its implementation. McConnell v. Federal Election Commission reached the Supreme Court, which upheld McCain-Feingold. Of course, now in the era of Citizens United that effort at limiting the influence of money in politics seems merely quaint.

In his last senate race in 2014, McConnell topped the list of contributions received by members of either house of Congress from registered lobbyists. In the 2014 election, McConnell raised (and spent) over $30 million, against about $18 million by his Democratic opponent, according to the organization Open Secrets, which tracks such things.  The biggest single industry contributions to his campaign came from securities and investment firms (led by Blackstone Group and Goldman Sachs. They were also number 1 and 2 in individual firm contributions, followed by Humana Inc (the health insurance company), NorPAC (a pro-Israel PAC), and JP Morgan Chase.

In December 2013, the FEC threatened to audit McConnell’s re-election campaign over excessive contributions from individuals and political action committees. In December 2014, McConnell attempted to to attach a policy rider to the omnibus appropriations bill that would have effectively ended limits imposed on coordinated spending by federal candidates and political party committees. (The effort was reportedly beaten back by Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer.) In 2014, the non-partisan Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) named McConnell as one of the most corrupt members of congress (for the fourth time!).

Regarding the second theme, McConnell’s willingness to be guided by professional political operatives, this is something that goes back to his earliest days in politics. In 1977 McConnell raised an unprecedented amount of money to run for county judge (equivalent to county executive) of Jefferson County, which includes Louisville. The money attracted the attention of Robert Goodman (a commercial maker) and Tully Plesser (a pollster and strategist). Decades later, they recalled that he wasn’t really an interesting person, but he was malleable and willing to do whatever they said in order to win. He refined his message to appeal to various constituencies (and then promptly abandoned some of his promises once in office), but perhaps more importantly launched a content-free but effectively negative TV ad featuring a farmer raking horseshit which he compared to statements by McConnell’s opponent. Thus began the winning theme.

When McConnell ran for senator in 1984, he hired Roger Ailes, the future guru of Fox News, who concocted an ingenious but essentially false attack ad against his opponent. It was credited with enabling McConnell to squeak into office in a year in which Reagan won by a landslide.  The alliance with Ailes remained solid throughout McConnell’s later career. For McConnell, the moral of the story is that winning is all that counts–the politics of politics.

So it’s not that hard to see where McConnell’s current tactics on the Republicans’ mysterious health care bill come from. Trump gets all the attention, while McConnell can work his dark arts in relative obscurity. The Garland affair proved that he can upend the norms of senate procedures with utter impunity. Trump supporters couldn’t give a shit, and his Republican senate colleagues have surrendered all semblance of independent thought. When it comes down to it, they’ll vote the party line. So what that millions of people could lose their health insurance and countless others–especially the sick and the elderly–would be paying far more for theirs, while the wealthy get a big tax cut. The consequences don’t matter as long as the dough-faced nerd can show everyone that he’s the man.

I’m a man without conviction
I’m a man who doesn’t know
How to sell a contradiction?
You come and go, you come and go.

             “Karma Chameleon”–Culture Club





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