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Kentuckian in the Breach

By George F. Will
Thursday, November 13, 2008

"I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."

-- Abraham Lincoln

Which is how discerning conservatives felt while waiting to see if, in Election Day's second-most important voting, Kentuckians would grant a fifth term to Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate Republicans. They did, making him Washington's most important Republican and second-most consequential elected official. This apotheosis has happened even though he is handicapped by, as National Review rather cruelly says, "an owlish, tight-lipped public demeanor reminiscent of George Will."

That disability is, however, a strength because it precludes an occupational hazard of senators -- presidential ambition. Besides, McConnell, 66, is completely a man of the Senate. At 22, he was an intern for Sen. John Sherman Cooper and went from law school to the staff of Sen. Marlow Cook. Because McConnell has been so thoroughly marinated in the institution's subtle mores and complex rules, he will wring maximum leverage from probably 43 Republican votes.

Which is why Democrats spared no expense in attempting to unhorse him, recruiting a rich opponent and supplementing his spending with $6 million from the national party. McConnell, to his great credit, had made himself vulnerable by opposing the "Millionaires' Amendment" to the McCain-Feingold law restricting political speech. That amendment punished wealthy, self-financing candidates by allowing their opponents to spend much more than the law otherwise allows. Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down the amendment for the reasons McConnell opposed it, including this one: Government has no business fine-tuning electoral competition by equalizing candidates' abilities to speak.

McConnell opposes public financing of presidential campaigns on Jeffersonian grounds ("To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is," said Jefferson, "sinful and tyrannical"). McConnell is a constitutionalist who has opposed McCain-Feingold and other abridgements of free speech, including the proposed constitutional amendment to ban the expressive act of flag burning.

Speaking last week by telephone from Kentucky, McConnell said Republicans should feel "disappointment, not despair." In comprehensively adverse conditions -- "the worst since the Depression" -- their presidential candidate nevertheless won 46 percent of the vote. Although 23 percent of Barack Obama's voters were under 30, McConnell does not subscribe to "as the twig is bent" determinism. ("Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined" -- Alexander Pope.) He does not think the younger generation has acquired an indelible Democratic imprint.

Ninety percent of John McCain's vote was white, and the white percentage of the turnout has fallen from 90 percent in 1976 to 77 percent in 2004 and 74 percent in 2008. Still, McConnell believes that although Hispanics, the nation's largest minority, gave Obama two-thirds of their votes, they are entrepreneurial and culturally conservative, and therefore are not beyond the reach of Republicans.

Legislatively, Republicans can begin clarifying their convictions by pressing to limit the scope and duration of what a Republican administration has unleashed -- the increasingly indiscriminate intrusion of government into financing the private sector. McConnell believes the bailout legislation was "necessary but not necessarily precedential." It should be considered a one-time response to a once-in-a-century crisis and should be terminated "as soon as possible" by government selling the assets it has acquired in order to recoup the money it has spent.

"The Senate," says McConnell, "is a place that brings many things to the middle, or stops them altogether." He has urged the president-elect to "tackle the big issues -- Social Security, Medicare -- that cannot be addressed without some kind of bipartisan buy-in."

Democrats probably can peel off a few Republican senators to reach 60 votes for some of their agenda. But not for all of it, which actually should please President Obama. For example, McConnell's caucus probably can stop organized labor's top priority -- abolition of workers' right to a secret ballot in unionization votes. Obama has endorsed this travesty but might prudently hope it never reaches his desk.

McConnell is Kentucky's most important politician since Henry Clay, "the Great Compromiser." Clay's attempts to defuse the sectional crisis rooted in slavery failed, but they bought time for Northern strength -- in population and industrial muscle -- to become sufficient to save the nation. McConnell, too, has the patience that politics repays and that the Republican recuperation might require.

But he also has a keen sense of how the nation "can change on a dime." Drawing upon this year's grim experience, he dryly says: "Governing is a hazardous business for presidential parties."

georgewill@washpost.com

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