“What Mitch McConnell has done and what I have watched, even some time when I was mayor of my city, when he came into a position when America was in a financial free-fall, there was crisis all over this country, he announced to America that the number one priority he had was keeping President Obama from getting a second term.”
— Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Jan. 8, 2017
As an example of Republican intransigence, Democrats love to bring up these long-ago remarks by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But they often get the timing and the context wrong.
If Booker is following past practice, he is suggesting McConnell made this statement near the start of Obama’s term. He notes that he was mayor of Newark (2006-2013) and that “America was in a financial free-fall, there was crisis all over this country.” That certainly sounds like the start of Obama’s presidency.
But that’s not when McConnell made this comment. The statement was also less remarkable than it’s often depicted.
McConnell made his remarks in an interview that appeared in the National Journal on Oct. 23, 2010 — nearly two years after Obama was elected president. The interview took place on the eve of the midterm elections. The interview was relatively short, so we will print it in its entirety, with key portions highlighted.
NJ: You’ve been studying the history of presidents who lost part or all of Congress in their first term. Why?
McConnell: In the last 100 years, three presidents suffered big defeats in Congress in their first term and then won reelection: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and the most recent example, Bill Clinton. I read a lot of history anyway, but I am trying to apply those lessons to current situations in hopes of not making the same mistakes.
NJ: What have you learned?
McConnell: After 1994, the public had the impression we Republicans over promised and under delivered. We suffered from some degree of hubris and acted as if the president was irrelevant and we would roll over him. By the summer of 1995, he was already on the way to being reelected, and we were hanging on for our lives.
NJ: What does this mean now?
McConnell: We need to be honest with the public. This election is about them, not us. And we need to treat this election as the first step in retaking the government. We need to say to everyone on Election Day, “Those of you who helped make this a good day, you need to go out and help us finish the job.”
N.J.: What’s the job?
McConnell: The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.
NJ: Does that mean endless, or at least frequent, confrontation with the president?
McConnell: If President Obama does a Clintonian backflip, if he’s willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him.
NJ: What are the big issues?
McConnell: It is possible the president’s advisers will tell him he has to do something to get right with the public on his levels of spending and [on] lowering the national debt. If he were to heed that advice, he would, I imagine, find more support among our conference than he would among some in the Senate in his own party. I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change. So, we’ll see. The next move is going to be up to him.
So, seen in context, McConnell was saying that if Republicans wanted to achieve their goals, such as repeal of the health-care law, they can’t just win the midterms, they need to ensure that Obama does not win reelection. It’s less of “an announcement” than a statement of fact.
McConnell further elaborated on his remarks in a speech at the Heritage Foundation after the election, in which the GOP made gains but did not win the Senate:
“Let’s start with the big picture. Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office. But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things it is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.”
As it happened, Obama did win a second term. But now that Republicans have won the Senate in 2014 and the presidency in 2016, the dream of repealing the health-care law remains front and center.
Jeff Giertz, Booker’s communications director, disputed our conclusion that Booker was placing McConnell’s remarks in 2009. “As I recall, the senator was still mayor of Newark in 2010, America was still in financial free-fall in 2010, and there was still an economic crisis in 2010,” he said. “And Senator Booker explicitly said ‘even some time.’ not placing it at a specific moment in time.”
But was the economy really still in a “financial free-fall” in October of 2010?
The recession officially ended in June 2009. The decline in U.S. jobs began to reverse in February 2010. Things were not perfect, but had improved enough that in a speech on Oct. 22, 2010, the day before the McConnell interview, Obama said: “Look, because of the steps that we’ve taken, we no longer face the possibility of a second depression. The economy is growing again. Private sector job growth has happened nine months in a row.”
That doesn’t sound like a free-fall to us.
The Pinocchio Test
McConnell clearly said he hoped to make Obama a one-term president, but he did it in a strictly political context — and not when the nation was still in a financial free-fall. Booker has fallen into the same trap as many other Democrats — suggesting these remarks came at the start of Obama’s presidency.
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