Mitch McConnell is still an enigma.
He’s the most powerful Republican in Washington and in his home state of Kentucky, now on the cusp of realizing his lifelong dream of becoming Senate majority leader. But those wishing to learn more about the man are left with precious few options, other than a friendly authorized biography and a handful of durable magazine profiles.
For all the commentary about him, McConnell has let few people in — especially journalists — and he prefers it that way. During a reporting trip to Kentucky last spring, I visited the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, hoping to dig into some archives. Unfortunately, I was told, his personal papers are on lockdown until McConnell retires. A few months later, in Washington, I had lunch with a talkative Republican senator who, when asked to describe McConnell’s personality, was at a loss for words.
“The Cynic,” an e-book from New Republic senior editor Alec MacGillis, is the latest attempt to make sense of the inscrutable Senate leader who, in the author’s telling, doesn’t have much of a life beyond politics. “He’s like Bobby Fisher,” says Bruce Lunsford, one of many Democrats McConnell has vanquished at the ballot box over the years. “Fisher could only do chess — he was so socially inept, he couldn’t do anything else. That’s what Mitch is like.”
If it isn’t obvious from the book’s title, the author, a former Washington Post reporter, has a dim view of the senator. From the get-go, when a youthful McConnell is described as an insecure and underwhelming physical specimen with “thin lips” and “doughy features,” all signs point to an election-year hate-read — a book that anxious Democrats will surely be clamoring for if Republicans take back the Senate in November and McConnell becomes majority leader, assuming he wins his own difficult reelection fight.
But while MacGillis writes with all the passion of a convert, he isn’t some liberal hack whom Republicans can coolly dismiss. He is a thorough and well-trained reporter happily unburdened from the dispassionate constraints of he-said-she-said political journalism. His recent examinations of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the New Republic, while unambiguously critical, were detail-rich portraits of the state political cultures that gave rise to two of the country’s most ambitious Republicans. Now again in “The Cynic,” MacGillis constructs his profile around interviews with long-lost friends, colleagues and enemies — more than 75 of them for this slim volume — who have known the subject since their provincial early days.
The story begins with a focus on McConnell’s election as Jefferson County judge-executive in 1977, a period the author mines for fresh detail about his early political thinking. As a Rockefeller Republican running for office in a sea of Democrats, McConnell pleaded for and won an endorsement from the AFL-CIO during his campaign and, once elected, made friends in the pro-choice movement by blocking local measures that would have restricted abortions. Back in those early post-Roe v. Wade days, the young Republican “had a very feminist perspective” on abortion, recalls one local official who worked with him.
But McConnell, a Gerald Ford man in a party drifting rightward in the direction of Ronald Reagan, soon backed away from these positions as he prepared for higher office. These revelations set the parameters for MacGillis’s overriding thesis: that the win-at-all-costs McConnell has come to embody everything wrong with a noxious American political system, corroded by money and corporate interests, in which elected officials care only about winning the next election instead of solving problems.
“At some point along the way, Mitch McConnell decided that his own longevity in Washington trumped all — that he would even be willing to feed the public disillusionment with its elected leaders if it would increase his and his party’s odds of success at the polls,” MacGillis writes. “In the contest of cynical striving versus earnest service, Mitch McConnell has already won.”
This is not a comprehensive work — three chapters and about 140 pages — so MacGillis drills down on the essentials, skipping past biographical details such as childhood and family life. There’s a chapter on McConnell’s hardball political tactics and the slashing television ads, half-truths and pernicious innuendo that have characterized many of his campaigns. After all, MacGillis notes, the media consultant on his first Senate campaign, in 1984, was Republican brawler Roger Ailes.
MacGillis provides an impressive study of McConnell’s fierce opposition to campaign finance reform, the animating policy issue of his long career. It’s a topic MacGillis taps for evidence of the senator’s fealty to the coal industry and other corporate monoliths that have an outsize voice in Washington thanks to their financial support of Republicans. Even McConnell’s marriage to Elaine Chao, the daughter of a Taiwanese shipping magnate and who would serve as labor secretary under President George W. Bush, brought with it a built-in perk, MacGillis says: a generous flood of donations from Chinese American business interests.
The final chapter examines his time as Republican Senate leader, a period of intense partisanship in which McConnell, who famously declared that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” did his best to keep his party in line on big votes to deny the president any bipartisan luster. Like Lyndon Johnson, that other Senate titan, McConnell has mastered the rules of the upper chamber and the practice of backroom dealing, even without Johnson’s larger-than-life personality. Unlike Johnson, MacGillis laments, McConnell has not used his considerable expertise in the service of dealmaking.
McConnell’s relentless opposition to Obama has been a questionable strategy, the author argues, allowing Democrats to push through sweeping health-care and financial reforms without much of a Republican fingerprint. Those first-term Obama wins gave rise to the tea party, a reliable burr in McConnell’s saddle. But McConnell, as always, has managed to survive and adapt, even among these ideological insurgents who have scaled the Senate walls — whatever it takes to maintain his grip on power and secure victory in the next election. “He lets the cards play out until he plays his cards and then he wins,” is how former Republican senator Judd Gregg describes McConnell’s cold, efficient pragmatism.
This ingenuity conjures up all manner of sinister adjectives. McConnell is “insidious” and “devious” and “purely partisan” — and MacGillis never lets you forget it. But throughout, one can’t help but wonder how the book would read if McConnell had a D next to his name instead of an R. Would he be a master of the Senate instead of the ultimate cynic?
The Political Education
of Mitch McConnell
By Alec MacGillis
Simon & Schuster e-book. $4.99