“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.

The Facts

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.

Four Pinocchios

(A­bout our rat­ing scale)

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Four Pinocchios
“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.”
in an interview on MSNBC
Sunday, August 12, 2018