Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Opinion Writer

A Mitch that needs scratching

One of the most powerful men in Washington, it turns out, is also the most unpopular senator in the nation.

This is probably not a coincidence.

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.

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Facing reelection in 2014, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) finds himself in a tougher battle than many anticipated. According to a recent poll, just 17 percent of Kentucky voters are committed to voting for him. Given how out of touch he is with their needs, it’s no wonder.

As minority leader, McConnell has been the architect of an unprecedented level of legislative obstruction in the upper chamber. Indeed, he was the mastermind behind the strategy of intransigence that the GOP adopted immediately after President Obama took office in 2009. He and his merry band of GOP brothers have blocked every effort to reduce the economic pain felt by average Americans and the good people of his home state.

His exploitation of the filibuster to require a supermajority for almost every vote flies in the face of the Founders’ intention. In the Federalist No. 58, James Madison warned that granting such power to the minority would undo the fundamental principle of free government, allowing the minority “to extort unreasonable indulgences.”

Senate Republicans, on McConnell’s orders, have done just that, manufacturing crises like the debt ceiling, fiscal cliff and sequester in order to demand cuts to the social safety net.

Yet there’s an even more unseemly aspect to McConnell’s obstruction. He, quite simply, employs the filibuster to benefit his wealthy donors.

As the Public Campaign Action Fund has noted, he has delayed or killed bills that would repeal subsidies for Big Oil, incentivize job creation, strengthen worker rights and close tax loopholes for companies with overseas operations. Opponents of such bills have found a champion in McConnell, who is more than willing to cripple the legislative process in exchange for campaign donations.

Since arriving in Washington, he has raised more than a quarter-billion dollars for himself and his allies while fighting every attempt to rein in our out-of-control campaign finance system.

When Congress was grappling over the fiscal cliff, McConnell seized on the opportunity to broker a deal that would avert the crisis in the eleventh hour. The final bill included a provision that granted Amgen, a pharmaceutical company, a $500 million windfall. Just weeks ahead of the deal, an Amgen lobbyist gave McConnell $3,000 and the company’s PAC hosted a fundraiser for him. Though McConnell denied any quid pro quo, the implication of the timing is hard to ignore.

When Americans suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy needed federal assistance, McConnell was content to sit on his hands, instead of helping to pass an aid package through the Senate — that is, until a New York City billionaire offered to raise money for him. Even then, he voted no on the bill.

President Obama urged Congress to bring his legislative proposals on gun violence to a vote during his State of the Union address. The victims of such senseless tragedies across the country deserve at least a vote, Obama asserted.

Yet given the McConnell-induced dysfunction in Congress, asking for a simple vote is asking for the moon — and McConnell has already vowed to deprive them of even that.

Eighty-two percent of Kentuckians support criminal background checks for gun purchases. The number of gun deaths in Kentucky is higher than the national average. But none of this matters when the gun lobby spent $198,615 to get McConnell elected. He will, apparently, vote based on what will keep him on office, rather than what is best for his constituents or the country.

McConnell, tacitly acknowledging his vulnerability, has already kicked off campaign efforts, raising money and opening a campaign headquarters before any challengers have even officially entered the race.

He’s smart to do so — opponents smell blood in the water. Groups like the Progressive Change Campaign, which released a scathing ad lambasting McConnell’s record on guns, are already generating momentum for a fight. There’s increasing talk of potential challengers such as Ashley Judd, and Kentucky’s liberal and tea party groups — unlikely bedfellows, to be sure — are mulling the possibility of teaming up in an effort to bring McConnell down.

While McConnell’s war chest is daunting, it is stuffed almost entirely by out-of-state and corporate PAC money. His grass-roots base is anemic, and individuals contributing $200 or less make up a sliver of the pie. A strong organizing effort could capitalize on that weakness, using his unpopularity and questionable votes to unseat him — something the Progressive Change Campaign Committee hopes to do.

Time and again, McConnell has ignored the needs of the people while staunchly defending the pay-to-play electoral system that shields him from legitimate challengers. And Kentuckians just might be fed up.

McConnell’s seat was once occupied by Henry Clay, who was dubbed “The Great Pacificator.” Admired by Abraham Lincoln, he is widely considered one of the greatest senators in American history. Clay once said, “Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.”

Kentucky voters deserve a senator who understands the wisdom of those words.

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