“Let me remind you that when the Republicans took power when President Obama was president of the United States, what Mitch McConnell said is, ‘The most important thing we can do is to make sure he does not succeed.’ If that wasn’t a racist statement. That is unthinkable.”
— House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in an interview on MSNBC, Aug. 12, 2018
Well, a zombie claim emerges from the dead again. But it’s even uglier than usual.
As an example of Republican intransigence, Democrats love to bring up some long-ago remarks by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But they often get the timing and the context wrong, even if they get the quote — that McConnell wanted to keep Obama a “one-term” president — right.
In this case, Pelosi got the timing mostly right — McConnell made his remarks on the eve of the midterm elections in 2010, just before House Republicans took power. (Usually Democrats suggest he said it after Obama first won election in 2008.) But she twists his words out of context — and states it was a “racist statement” as well.
Let’s take a look.
McConnell made his comments in an interview that appeared in the National Journal on Oct. 23, 2010. 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 overpromised and underdelivered. 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.”
NJ.: 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 Affordable Care Act, they can’t just win the midterms — they also 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 2010 election, in which the GOP won control of the House:
“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.”
Of course, Obama did not become a one-term president, and the GOP did not take control of the Senate until 2014. And even when Republicans took the presidency in 2016, they still could not eliminate Obamacare.
Let’s go back to Pelosi. She made her comments in response to this question: “You’ve worked with Speaker Ryan, you know Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, why do you think they haven’t spoken up as leaders in the United States against something as pernicious as white supremacy and racism?”
(Note: McConnell on Aug. 16, 2017, issued this statement when white supremacists were reported to be planning a rally in Kentucky: “We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred. There are no good neo-nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head.”)
Pelosi did not directly answer but instead harked back to this 2010 interview. But nowhere in McConnell’s comments can we find a line like: “The most important thing we can do is to make sure he does not succeed.” Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, said it was a paraphrase of this line: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Hmmm. That ignores the rest of the conversation: “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. … I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
In response to our questions, Hammill said: “The leader’s larger point is that President Obama was treated differently than other presidents by Republican leaders like McConnell. They undermined him at every turn, obstructed his agenda at levels not seen in the history of our country and turned normally bipartisan matters like government funding, infrastructure, etc., into crises over and over again.”
But we found numerous examples of when Obama thanked McConnell for his help in passing legislation. McConnell worked with Obama on making the George W. Bush tax cuts permanent and on free trade. Those are policies that Pelosi at the time opposed, but they are also good examples of Obama and McConnell meeting halfway on key issues.
Hammill’s response: “This is the leader’s opinion based on her firsthand experience.”
In 2015, we should note, the New York Times published a lengthy article on McConnell’s “nuanced, sometimes surprising, sometimes contentious record on civil rights that has placed him apart from some Republican colleagues and from some voters in his home state, Kentucky.”
The Pinocchio Test
We obviously don’t fact-check opinion. But clearly Pelosi’s paraphrase bears little relationship to what McConnell actually said in 2010 — he even said he did not want Obama to fail — and we are flummoxed how this anodyne political statement then is twisted into being an allegedly racist statement. McConnell was a tough customer for Obama, his political opposite, but they did cooperate when their interests were in sync.
Democrats have sometimes placed McConnell’s “one-term” comment in the wrong year, but we are unaware of a senior Democrat bungling the actual quote so much in service of an incendiary charge. Pelosi earns Four Pinocchios.
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