A speech stuck on 'repeat'

Sen. Mitch McConnell seems to think that if he says something often enough, it will be so.
Sen. Mitch McConnell seems to think that if he says something often enough, it will be so. (Harry Hamburg/associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, October 22, 2009

If he were a runner, he would do ultramarathons. If he were a swimmer, he would cross the English Channel. If he were a baseball player, he would be Cal Ripken.

Mitch McConnell is none of those things. But on Wednesday, the Republican leader of the Senate accomplished a feat of endurance no less impressive: He delivered his 50th floor speech since the beginning of June denouncing Democrats' health-care reform plans.

These speeches, about 44,000 words in all, test the outer limits of human stamina. Ninety-four times he warned of the evils of a "government-run" system, according to a Washington Post analysis. Forty-seven times he warned of a "government takeover" of the same. Fourteen times he railed against the Democrats' nefarious "experiment." Thirty-seven times he spoke the phrases "higher taxes" or "raise taxes," and at least 19 times he used the words "slash Medicare" or "Medicare cuts."

Perhaps more accurate than saying that McConnell gave 50 health-care speeches would be saying that McConnell gave the same health-care speech 50 times, with minor changes. And this in itself is a major achievement: Only a disciplined and well-conditioned public orator could repeat himself so often without injury.

Albert Einstein had an unkind label for those who do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Yet that has been the strategy of McConnell, and congressional Republicans generally, as they have labored over the past several months to defeat any health-care plan proposed by the White House and congressional Democrats. Higher taxes. Medicare cuts. Government takeover. Rationing. Closed-door negotiations. Dangerous experiment. Higher premiums. Canada. Lather and repeat. The phrases have become less a form of rhetoric than a collection of verbal tics.

"For most Democrats, reform seems to come in a single form: a vast expansion of government detailed in complicated, thousand-page bills costing trillions," McConnell said Wednesday morning near the beginning of his 50th speech.

It was the 19th time he had mentioned some form of government "expansion," often preceded by "vast" or "massive," and the eighth mention of the bill's 1,000 pages.

"The only thing that's clear about the Democratic plans are the basics," he went on. "It costs about $1 trillion," he said, for the 61st time. "They increase premiums," he said, for the 16th time.

For McConnell, these statistics are a matter of pride. His aides alerted news organizations to the occasion of his 50th health-care speech, which he delivered just after the opening prayer and a speech by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). As always, the Kentuckian's style was spare: His lips barely moved when he spoke, his upper teeth rarely showed themselves, and his gestures were limited to the occasional wag of the index finger. He spoke in the tone of a traditionalist father lecturing his wayward teenager.

McConnell went through several of his usual tropes right away -- higher premiums and taxes, fewer Medicare benefits, government expansion -- and then, seconds later, repeated those items. "What was supposed to be an exercise in smart, bipartisan, common-sense reforms that cut costs and increase access somehow became an exercise in government expansion that promises to raise costs, raise premiums and slash Medicare for seniors," he said.

This was the 30th mention of the Republicans' "common-sense" alternative. And there was not long to wait before the 31st reference. Instead of a massive government-driven experiment, Republicans had offered "common-sense, step-by-step solutions to the problems of cost and access," the minority leader continued. It was the 15th mention of experiment and the sixth use of "government-driven" (not to be confused with "government-run" or "government takeover").

For the 27th time since his streak began on June 1, McConnell spoke of Republicans' craving for medical malpractice limits, "things like medical liability reform, which would save tens of billions of dollars and increase access to care." Recalling, for the sixth time, the summer's town hall meetings, he reminded Democrats, for the fourth time, that they weren't heeding "ordinary Americans."

"Americans rejected the idea of a vast new experiment," the Republican leader went on, "to reorder their health care, and nearly one-fifth of the economy, in a single, stunning move." This was the first mention of health care as "nearly one-fifth of the economy," however. On six previous occasions, he described the industry as "one-sixth" of the economy.

The minority leader was in the homestretch of his long run. He spoke of the "national debt" (24th mention, often preceded by "staggering"), the "message" from the American people (15th mention), and Americans' distaste for "denial" (28th in some form), "delay" (46th) and rationing (26th) of care. Americans, he said, for the third time in 10 minutes and the 32nd time in 50 speeches, want "common-sense" reforms.

McConnell yielded the floor. It was time to ice the jaw muscles and rest his weary tongue for speech No. 51.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company