An article yesterday incorrectly reported how many votes Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) needs to block action on a campaign finance bill. Under Senate rules, the number is 41. (Published 10/13/1999)
On the ego wall of Mitch McConnell's office, where most Republican senators put their coveted Handshake With Ronald Reagan photos, the senator from Kentucky has embraced the worst epithets his enemies can muster. A framed newspaper headline announces that McConnell has killed campaign finance reform. Editorial cartoons zing him mercilessly, depicting him as the property of the gun lobby, as a fat-cat moneybags pol, as the black-hatted sheriff blowing away the white knight of campaign reform.
The gray man with the bloodless lips offers a thin smile, as if to say "Bring it on." Serious and dour, Addison Mitchell McConnell is no Bob Forehead. He does resemble many of his colleagues -- the ones in the oil portraits from 75 years ago. But no one judges McConnell to be out of step with the times, least of all anyone who has spent any time in the past decade fighting to reduce the role money plays in American politics.
Starting sometime this week, Mitch McConnell -- master strategist, champion fund-raiser, proud obstructionist -- makes one of his periodic goal-line stands against the cheery do-gooders in the campaign finance reform movement. Over the next few days, as the Senate debates the intricacies of "soft money" and contribution limits, as flighty rhetoric and low rage fill the chamber in the latest battle over what role money should play in American politics, opponents of reform will rest easy in the knowledge that nothing will be accomplished. For that, they are forever grateful to one man -- the sober senior senator from Kentucky.
"I suppose we may have to filibuster again," McConnell says, his creamy blue eyes betraying his excitement at the thought of using Senate procedures to block a direct vote on campaign finance. The senator tells no story so well as the one about his 1994 filibuster -- "the only true all-night filibuster in the past 12 years," he is quick to note -- that blocked the most serious bid to dam the river of cash pouring into electoral politics. He's ready to talk through the night once more, although that probably won't be necessary: McConnell knows he has the 40 votes needed to forestall action.
"Mitch is tough, tough as they come," says his GOP colleague, Phil Gramm of Texas. "He has won the admiration of some people who vote for this reform thing knowing it won't pass because Mitch McConnell is taking the lead. In the Senate, there are not many people who are willing to lead on controversial issues. Mitch makes his colleagues' lives easier."
There is another view of McConnell. Ralph Nader calls him "the worst senator in the U.S. Senate." Common Cause sends out mass mailings referring to him as the "Darth Vader of campaign finance reform" and "a new type of Public Enemy #1." His hometown newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, has called him "Mitch the Glitch," a "shabby obstructionist" who stands firm against the forces of good and reform.
"He has come to represent the evils of and the sophistication of big money in politics," says Common Cause president Scott Harshbarger, who believes that big money corrupts the system and that limits would give those who are not rich greater access to politicians. "He's fighting to hold on to power. He's been very clever in cloaking himself in the First Amendment, but what he really does is wield raw power with great relish. He's willing to be up front, take the heat, be the focus."
The public interest lobby group has been equally willing to vilify McConnell, to use his name and face to raise money and support for restrictions on contributions. But Harshbarger now concedes that the effort has failed. "I'm not sure it's really worked because I don't know that enough people know who Mitch McConnell is," he says. "Frankly, we have probably elevated Senator McConnell's success more than he's come to personify the issue."
McConnell couldn't have put it better himself. "The polls look bad, everybody thinks you're doing the wrong thing, unpleasant things are said about you," he says, utterly unperturbed. "The Wall Street Journal called me the `national pin~ata.' " It's all raw meat to fuel McConnell's quest for freedom of contributions.
McConnell believes he has right and the Founding Fathers on his side. He has more than that. McConnell didn't get to be the three-term GOP senator from a Democratic state by being a milquetoast. He got there by making things happen -- often behind the scenes.
In ritual Washington, left squares off against right and, like those magnetic Scotties in the turnpike vending machines, each repels the other. But beneath the televised face-offs, everything is grayer.
In a corner of an ornate hearing room in the Russell Senate Office Building, 15 people who are supposed to hate one another gather around a table, laughing and planning an unpleasant end for this year's version of the McCain-Feingold bill, which would cut off the flow of unrestricted soft money to the national political committees. Here's the head lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union across from her counterpart from the National Right to Life Committee, together in the coalition McConnell has created against restrictions on contributions.
"All of us get the irony of working together, but everybody has a pretty sick sense of humor," says the ACLU's Laura Murphy, who with her conservative allies believes that spending money is a form of speech and therefore, under the First Amendment, cannot be curtailed. "McConnell keeps us oddly comfortable around the table. McConnell is one of the best First Amendment scholars; he studies and memorizes the material. He can talk extemporaneously and with passion about the cases.
"It's amusing that he's portrayed as this Darth Vader character of evil. There are other senators who walk around creating an aura, five aides trailing them wherever they go. McConnell will walk by himself. He'll take your call himself. He's not caught up in the majesty of the Senate." This from a lobbyist whose group gave McConnell a 14 percent approval rating for his votes in the last Congress.
Persistence and Politics
McConnell has spent his entire life honing his political skills. He hasn't really ever done anything else. He served as county judge -- an executive position, not a courtroom job -- before winning his Senate seat in 1984 with a particularly biting set of TV spots in which hound dogs searched in vain for the incumbent, who was off making big money lecturing in exotic places. McConnell was Mr. Student Government, in law school, college and high school. At 14, McConnell watched both political conventions on TV, gavel to gavel. In his fifth-grade class photo, he is the boy wearing the "I Like Ike" button.
If he harbored a desire to be chosen by his peers, it would be more than understandable. And if he had an extraordinary well of persistence to draw from, that too would make sense, for McConnell's childhood began with a hard-won lesson. At 2, he was stricken with polio, and for the next two years, his mother managed to keep Mitch off his feet. Three times a day, she pushed him through his leg therapy; the rest of the time, she stayed at his side, holding him back from learning to walk. The doctors feared he would cripple himself if he started walking before his leg was strong enough.
Again and again, his mother told Mitch: "You can walk, but you can't walk." You have the ability, but you are not permitted.
"I had a lesson taught me about how persistence and tenacity can overcome adversity," the senator says. He recalls with a big smile the day the docs told him he could wear normal shoes; "We stopped in LaGrange, Georgia, at a department store and bought a pair of saddle oxfords."
To this day, McConnell has a slight hitch in his gait, particularly when walking down stairs. Climbing is much easier.
At 57, the lessons of that boyhood fright remain. "Mitch has a very calm manner, but he loves the fight," says his second wife, Elaine Chao, the former Peace Corps director, now at the Heritage Foundation. She notes that his favorite movies are action-packed battles between good and evil: "The Rock," "Face/Off."
"For Mitch, a life of adoration is not a life worth being proud of," Chao said. "He takes delight in frustrating his enemies. Their damnation becomes the highest praise."
He is perhaps the Senate's top student of campaign strategy. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has raised $38 million in the past 2 1/2 years, McConnell studies polling data and TV commercials so closely that some colleagues prefer his advice to the professional consultants'.
He's so good at the activity that politicians claim to hate -- the actual fund-raising -- that he brings in money by the wheelbarrowful. "People who aren't good at fund-raising hem and haw and never quite get to it," says Steven Law, executive director of the NRSC and McConnell's former chief of staff. "The senator just says it direct: This is our need and this is the amount. And he gets a yes or a no. He enjoys it. And he's not ashamed of it."
Money and Message
The gospel of politics requires that politicians pay lip service to the idea that money is bad, lobbying is dirty, special interests are slimy. McConnell, shielded only by the Constitution and a bulging bank account -- $5 million in his last campaign -- won't have any of it.
Money is good, he says. "Going door to door is applauded in this country as an act of civic responsibility, but writing a check is condemned. Why is that? I don't think that's a tainted exchange."
Lobbyists are the voice of the people. When a Kentucky radio reporter asks if it didn't look just awful to see senators breakfasting with HMO lobbyists on the day of the vote on a "patients' bill of rights," McConnell gives no quarter: "I can't think of a more appropriate time to hear from lobbyists than when they have a bill before Congress," he says.
And when the reporter gives McConnell another chance to say the popular thing ("It probably would have looked a lot better if it hadn't been a $1,000-a-plate breakfast"), the senator sticks to his guns: "Oh, I don't think it makes a whole lot of difference."
McConnell pleads guilty to the ultimate charge against him, that he believes that those who have more money perforce have a larger voice in a democracy. "They do, sure, absolutely," he says. "Just like The Washington Post has a bigger mouth than the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky. It's bigger. It has more money. Access is not corrupting. It's human nature: When my children call, they get through immediately."
Some of his Republican colleagues get downright giggly when they hear his jaw-dropping sound bites, such as "We're not spending nearly enough on politics in this country."
Is McConnell a principled libertarian fighting for a pure right to speech, or a crafty pragmatist scrambling to secure his sources of succor? Or can he be both?
McConnell claims to be "more pure than a lot of people around here" on First Amendment questions. "I am doing the Lord's work, not the dirty work," he says. "Somebody needs to protect the rights of Americans to project their message."
He has made significant gestures toward consistency. He suffered barbs from veterans when he switched sides on the flag-burning debate, breaking with his party to say that even flag-burners may express themselves.
But McConnell also voted to restrict speech on the Internet -- a law that was later struck down as unconstitutional. "Pornography is a troubling issue," he says.
A cynic looking around McConnell's Senate office would find fodder for a dark view of the man and his politics. The symbols that surround this senator include a veritable museum of trinkets from some of his largest donors -- the National Rifle Association's Eagle Award, a framed tobacco leaf, a tobacco cutter from Philip Morris USA, presents from the horse racing industry, the Farm Bureau's Golden Plow award.
But someone looking for something to believe in would also find solace here, in the folded flag from McConnell's father's casket, a bill of lading signed by James Madison, and over on the wall, where most GOP senators post pictures of their handshakes with Reagan, a photo of McConnell with his role model, Sen. John Sherman Cooper, the liberal Republican from Kentucky for whom he once interned.
And now, it is off into battle, armed with facts and law, his blue eyes brightening at the prospect of another filibuster. "I'd be surprised if we were able to reach consensus on this issue," McConnell says wryly. He can't wait.