The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Discipline and ‘herding cats’: McConnell’s long game delivers a Senate GOP record

Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is poised to become the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A young Mitch McConnell showed up at Senate GOP campaign headquarters early — 2 ½ years ahead of time.

Republicans were busy planning for the 1982 midterm elections, but the Kentucky Republican arrived to pitch them on how he would run, and eventually win, his first Senate race in 1984.

“I’ve always felt you had a better chance of success in whatever you’re working on, whether it’s a campaign, or Senate seat, or hoping to be leader at some point, to make an early start,” McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said in an interview Thursday.

McConnell has used that scheming, strategizing and tactical maneuvering to win five reelection campaigns and rise through the ranks. On Tuesday, McConnell, 76, will eclipse Robert J. Dole (Kan.) as the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history, with a tenure of 11 years, five months and 10 days.

It is a tenure marked by extreme discipline and extreme paradoxes.

McConnell casts himself as a defender of the Senate as a unifying institution, determined to join its ranks from his days as a Capitol Hill intern. Yet Democrats deride him as the man who set fire to the Senate and wants credit for calling the fire department, only to now serve as an enabler of President Trump.

McConnell has done as much to advance conservative causes as any Republican in the past 25 years, practically stealing the ideological balance of the Supreme Court and slashing tax rates to their lowest levels in decades. Yet the most conservative activists deride him as a moderate establishment figure worthy of being portrayed as a villain in GOP primary campaigns.

In separate interviews, McConnell’s colleagues give the same assessments of his leadership style.

“Strategy, strategy and keeping the ship steady and straight, until we get to a goal,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a friend of Dole’s who has served more than 21 years in the Senate. “The term of ‘herding cats’ comes to mind.”

“He’s a master tactician and strategist. He has managed to herd cats, which is not easy,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who came to the Senate with Roberts in 1997.

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The “herding cats” term came from a previous majority leader, the late Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), who rose to the position through his own personal popularity and ability to deliver bipartisan results despite the difficult task of getting 100 “cats” to cooperate.

Baker’s tenure seems like a throwback to the 19th century compared with today’s Senate. He, Dole and then Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who succeeded Dole in 1996, adopted the model of hard work and dealmaking with quirky personalities that, in their own way, made them likable and powerful figures.

But in 2007, when McConnell became minority leader, he had risen to power through sheer hard work, plotting, doing the dirty tasks that others did not want to do, collecting chits from colleagues. He does not convey a warm and sunny disposition, to his colleagues or in the media.

“He is the past master at keeping his own counsel, very closely,” Lott said in an interview. “I cannot remember the last time he made a faux pas.”

History credits other GOP leaders with major bipartisan achievements, from the Panama Canal Treaty (Baker, ratified in 1978) to the Americans With Disabilities Act (Dole, 1990) to welfare overhaul (Lott, 1996).

McConnell’s most significant accomplishments were fiscal deals in President Barack Obama’s first term, often negotiated with Vice President Joe Biden, that made permanent tax cuts for most individuals and imposed spending limits. He crafted complicated procedural maneuvers to approve those compromises with the least negative political fallout for his own members.

Procedural tactics came to him at an early age. In high school, McConnell knew he wasn’t popular enough to become class president. So he doggedly lined up enough endorsements from the school’s stars and slid whip cards into every locker so that underclassmen would know that the school’s most popular students backed him.

He won.

By the time he took his Senate seat in 1985, McConnell doubted that he would ever become majority leader. “None of these people are ever going to die, retire or be defeated,” he said to himself.

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But for the man whose 2016 autobiography is “The Long Game,” and who overcame polio as a child and still walks with a hitch, time was his friend. Colleagues started running for leadership positions only to find that McConnell already had the votes locked up.

“I didn’t get into this position overnight. It took a lot of work over a lengthy period of time to gain the confidence of your colleagues,” he said.

When he became minority leader, McConnell served across the aisle from a similarly soft-spoken Democrat, Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who, like McConnell, never aspired to any post higher than majority leader. They sparred for a decade, developing what their colleagues considered the worst relationship ever between Senate leaders.

The result was a much more top-down, leadership-driven Senate that rank-and-file senators on both sides complain about but never rebel against. Perhaps their lack of rebellion leads McConnell to think the Senate is in better institutional shape than many senators say in private.

He cites bipartisan bills to ease banking regulations and to improve treatment of military veterans. “I know what the story line is, that we all fight all the time and are at each other’s throats on a daily basis. I just don’t see it. I don’t see it around here,” McConnell said.

After the 2014 elections gave Republicans the majority, McConnell set out to return the Senate to its more freewheeling days, and that first year, 2015, was a time of bipartisan legislation.

Then, Presidents’ Day weekend, in February 2016, McConnell received news that Justice Antonin Scalia had died on a hunting trip in Texas. Obama suddenly had an opening that could tilt the balance of the Supreme Court.

McConnell made a tactical decision that will define his legacy, for better or worse. Without consulting a single senator, he said the seat would remain vacant until after the presidential election — no confirmation hearing, no votes.

“I wanted to set down a kind of a marker so that all my members who had scattered around the world and around the country at least knew what I thought,” McConnell said.

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By the fall of 2016, evangelical Republicans who had doubted Trump had warmed to his candidacy, in part on the basis of the Supreme Court vacancy, boosting him to the presidency and helping save the GOP’s Senate majority.

Democrats have never forgiven McConnell. They have drawn out debate on even the least controversial of Trump nominations, tying the Senate up in knots and forcing McConnell to cancel portions of the once-untouchable August recess to march nominees through to confirmation.

Yet, in another paradox, McConnell said that he and Reid’s successor, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), have “an excellent relationship.” The two have pledged to try to move the spending bills.

McConnell declined to reflect on his legacy, despite being on the threshold of a historical record of longevity, because, he said, he plans to keep strategizing for the long game.

“I’m not the right one to write my own epitaph,” McConnell said. “Particularly since this is not the time for an epitaph. It’s just breaking a record. It’s not, it’s not, a goodbye.”