Al Cross is the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, a position he’s held since 2004. Prior to accepting the post at UK, Cross spent almost three decades covering Kentucky politics — a period that spans the entirety of Mitch McConnell’s election in 1984 and rise to power in the Senate. No one in the Kentucky press corps — current or former — knows McConnell like Al does. So, with McConnell at the center of a potential deal to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling, we reached out to Al for some perspective about McConnell. Our conversation — conducted via email — is below.
Mitch McConnell spent the entire shutdown in the shadows. Now he steps into the limelight to cut a deal with Harry Reid. Why? What’s his motivation?
Al Cross: We know him as a cunning politician with an exquisite sense of self-preservation, but he also has a responsibility to the republic, and to the world, and he realizes it. He also knows that if there is a train wreck, he will get part of the blame and make 2014 an even worse year for incumbents like himself.
McConnell’s reputation in DC as a raw political practitioner. He does what he needs to do to win. Is that an accurate portrayal of him or too limited?
Al: That’s too limited, as my first answer indicates. Look at his longstanding support for freedom in Burma/Myanmar. His critics would say he just needs a fig leaf, but I think he felt deeply about the courage and persecution of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Why are McConnell’s numbers in such bad shape in the state? Is this any worse a place than he starts his re-election races?
Al: Over five terms, he has become more conservative and burned bridges, hardening the views of both Democrats and Republicans who don’t like him. The latter group, which is not an insignificant slice of Kentucky Republicans, has expanded with the establishment of the tea party and Rand Paul’s upset of McConnell-anointed Trey Grayson in the 2010 [Senate] primary. The tea-party element has long existed in the state GOP, but was largely inchoate until those sentiments gained a national identity and a local tribune, Paul.
Does being involved in this sort of deal — if there is one — help or hurt him back in the state?
Al: Depends on the deal. If it’s the bipartisan deal for which Susan Collins is running point, and he gets a majority of his own caucus to accept it (and I don’t think he would go for it unless he thought he could), it will of course hurt him with the tea-party types, but he probably wasn’t going to get their votes anyway. It probably helps him with Republicans and independents who dislike him because he is stepping in at a critical moment to prevent damage to the fragile economies of America and the world.
FIX: McConnell has been in the Senate since 1984. What is his legacy to this point? And is that different than what he wants his legacy to be?
Al: His legacy is as a partisan battler who has moved the argument about campaign finance, and the resulting policies, much more in the Republican direction. I think he wants his legacy to be that as Senate majority leader, the job to which he aspires, he was a major player in stemming the Democratic and liberal tide.