The New Republic's Alec MacGillis is out with a new e-book about Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose 2014 reelection campaign is a list of dismaying superlatives. It will likely be the most expensive Senate race in history, it has featured some of the silliest ads and stupidest controversies, and it features one of the most unpopular-yet-routinely-successful incumbents in the country.
"The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell" concedes that McConnell is a very good politician, despite having very little charisma and looking a lot like the elites he ceaselessly derides. MacGillis argues that becoming a very good politician, in the McConnell sense, requires avoiding all aspects of politics that don't involve campaigning, until you are so electorally aerodynamic that sliding into victory becomes easy and everything else -- legislating, compromising -- becomes impossible.
MacGillis's book serves as a great reminder of how McConnell became the Senate leader he is today -- and how much every elected official tends to change the more they learn about Washington and their polarized constituents.
Here are a few snapshots from the book, which you can find here.
1. 100 years from now, we might not be talking about Mitch McConnell as much as Barack Obama or George W. Bush ...
... but MacGillis argues that the senator's career is one of the best ways to understand how American politics have changed in the past decade.
There is an understandable inclination to tell political history through its most colorful characters -- Teddy Roosevelt, LBJ, Bill Clinton. But our times are often shaped as much, if not more, by our nondescript figures. To understand what has happened in Washington over the past few decades ... we must seek to understand Mitch McConnell. It is he who symbolizes better than anyone else in politics today the transformation of the Republican Party from a broad, nationwide coalition spanning conservatives, moderates, and even some liberals into an ideologically monolithic, demographically constrained unit that political scientists judge without historical precedence.
2. He used to be more moderate.
Of course, so did a lot of Republicans in the South. In 1963, he wrote an op-ed arguing that Republicans should take the lead with civil rights, and he pushed for legislative changes in states and on the federal level. "One must view the Constitution as a document adaptable to conditions of contemporary society," McConnell argued. He added that 'strict interpretation' could be "innately evil" if its end was denying rights to any groups. McConnell saw the Voting Rights Act get signed.
His first legal job was at a pro-union labor firm, and unions supported his first political campaign when he won a county executive race in Jefferson County. Many people in Kentucky commented on his pro-choice politics. He even had a cat named Rocky, after the moderate New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.
3. He knows how to make a great campaign ad.
The most memorable ad from McConnell's county executive campaign ended with a farmer shoveling manure toward the camera.
The ad, which debuted during the first game of the World Series, appalled some of McConnell's supporters in Louisville high society, but was a hit in less tony quarters. "Some of the nice people said, 'Ooh, that's pretty rough,'" says Goodman, the ad maker. "But the guys around the feed store said, 'Hey, thay guy's got balls.'" One person who had no reservations about the ad was the candidate himself. "Oh, God, he loved it," said Goodman.
During McConnell's first Senate campaign in 1984, he hired Roger Ailes to help with ads. They ran this ad, which AdAge called one of the 10 best political ads of all time.
Jane Mayer wrote about how Ailes came up with the idea in 2012:
Ailes, she said, recalled vividly how the brainstorm came to him. Dispirited over McConnell’s dim poll numbers, he had returned to his apartment with the campaign research, to nurse a headache. Turning on the television, he was captivated by a dog-food commercial featuring a pack of canines running for their chow. “Dogs!” he wrote down, Briganti says.
He still has a great ad team. When his current Senate opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, ran an ad making fun of the way McConnell held a gun, McConnell's team conjured a retort only a day later, which managed to connect his opponent to Obama.
4. The more he's learned about fundraising, the more he's grown to hate limits on spending
The Louisville Courier-Journal published an op-ed in 1973 calling for expansive campaign finance reform -- contribution limits, more disclosure, a cap on campaign spending, etc. It was a column that McConnell later called pandering.
He also is the very same person who wrote it.
In a 1993 op-ed, he wrote that "soft money should be banned." In 2001, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled, "In Defense of Soft Money." He has often praised the Citizens United decision, and always raises insane amounts of money for his elections. He's broken records more than once. And Mitch McConnell's former chief of staff is now the president of American Crossroads, which subsists on unlimited contributions.
5. Many people can't think of any other job they can imagine Mitch McConnell doing.
The book is full of quotes talking about how no one has ever seen McConnell do anything except politics.
- Lance Tarrance: "He literally eats and sleeps and digests politics every hour. I don't think I ever met anyone who was so hardwired for politics."
- Larry Forgy, Reagan's Kentucky campaign guy: "If he was not elected he would be like a TB victim when you remove the oxygen--it's what feeds him."
- Forgy: "I don't know what Mitch McConnell would do if not for politics."
- Former GOP Sen. Marlow Cook: "If you gave him grades for political activity and grades for legislative activity, certainly the first would be by far the greatest accomplishment."
6. McConnell often attacks Grimes by saying Obama needs her in Washington ...
... and oddly enough, McConnell's first Senate race had him making the very same argument about himself. "Whittle, the state party chairman, had made it a refrain to tell voters around the state that Reagan 'needs Mitch' in Washington."