Fighting for political life, Mitch has LaPierre's back

He'll do anything to avoid or win a primary, which means sabotaging gun control, plus other confusing moves

Published April 15, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell            (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

I owe Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a minor apology. I said he was being very silly when he demanded an FBI investigation into the recording of a meeting at his campaign office. In fact, the meeting actually was surreptitiously recorded by his political enemies, or at least by a guy who operates a useless "super PAC" that has, thus far, spent a total of $18 on defeating McConnell. McConnell probably didn't lose much sleep awaiting my apology, though, because the recording, and the news of its provenance, are just about the best things that have happened to the guy since the D.C. circuit court gave McConnell veto power over all of President Obama's appointments.

McConnell's very good week might not end up meaning very much, though, if the United States Senate manages, somehow, to pass major legislation on gun control and immigration any time soon. Because whenever the United States Senate manages to accomplish anything, conservatives get very irate with Mitch McConnell for allowing it to happen.

McConnell is reviled by the right-wing activist base, for reasons that, honestly, I don't quite get. McConnell is up for reelection next year. He is working right now to prevent the possibility of a serious primary challenge. He's succeeding, so far, but candidates have until next January to make up their minds. That's a lot of time for some "Ron Johnson type" to emerge.

(It is a bit unusual for a Republican Senate leader to be in such a precarious electoral position. Republicans are generally smarter than Democrats when it comes to selecting leaders who aren't under the constant threat of losing their next election. Harry Reid has proven himself to be a competent majority leader in some ways, but the fact that he answers to Nevada voters makes him quite willing to ignore liberal priorities on any number of issues. McConnell, like many Republican members of Congress, is more vulnerable to a primary challenge than a Democrat, though he's unpopular enough to need to fear both.)

With 2014 in mind, it's easy to see why McConnell refuses to meet with Harry Reid, even in private. (That's also news that McConnell will not mind seeing reported.) And it's why McConnell is going to do everything in his power to derail the gun control compromise currently being negotiated by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey. Politico has a special preview of the horrible amendments McConnell will add in order to blow up the bill:

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is drafting an alternative gun bill that could peel away GOP support, and McConnell may attempt to force votes on allowing guns in federal buildings and national parks, or the creation of a national “concealed carry” standard.

If McConnell wins, if recent history is any indication, he won't get much credit from the right. If he loses, and a gun bill passes the Senate, he'll get pilloried. Even if the bill goes nowhere in the House. Doing the (nationally) unpopular thing and sabotaging this very popular bill is basically a no-brainer for McConnell, which is likely why gun control advocates never even bothered to lobby him.

Everything McConnell is doing is about a potential primary election. As Roll Call says, a big part of McConnell's strategy is to act as much like Rand Paul as possible, because Rand Paul is quite popular. On guns, it's quite easy for McConnell to back Paul. It's harder to say, though, what McConnell will do about the immigration reform compromise. Paul supports citizenship opportunities for currently undocumented immigrants. Right-wingers used to call that "amnesty," and they hate it. McConnell has not yet given any hint of what he'll do once the "Gang of 8" finally unveils a proposal.

If you understand McConnell's actions as purely, nakedly political and basically devoid of "principle" or even ideology -- his purpose in obstructing all Senate business during Obama's first term was defeating Obama, not advancing conservatism -- immigration reform will be an interesting experiment. He could win conservative cred by opposing it -- right-wing darling Ted Cruz is making himself the face of opposition to the proposal for a reason -- but he may not want to appear in any way opposed to Rand Paul, his most important political ally. (Paul could make McConnell's decision easier and come out against the proposal. We'll see!)

So, for the next year and change, the primary goal of the Senate minority leader will be avoiding or winning a primary against a very right-wing challenger. Which is why this bit of news, reported in Roll Call, is so curious. Apparently McConnell gave a secret speech last week to the National Urban League, the venerable black civil rights community organization.

McConnell’s address to the National Urban League, for example, sounded a lot like Paul’s at Howard. According to a source familiar with McConnell’s speech, the leader told the room of black business leaders: “I want to see a day when more African-Americans look at the issues and realize that they identify with the Republican Party.” That message echoed Paul’s at the historically black university.

McConnell also dedicated time to talking about Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., telling the crowd in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building that Scott is an African-American who has realized the strength of GOP politics. It doesn’t hurt McConnell’s case with the right that Scott also happens to be a tea party conservative.

If the point was to imitate Rand Paul's speech at Howard University, keeping it so quiet is confusing. (Or maybe it wasn't a secret and actually it's just that no one cared to cover it until now.) Conservatives do love it when their heroes tell "hard truths" to unfriendly audiences (like racial or ethnic minorities) but this sounds like a very uneventful address. Maybe Mitch McConnell does care about more than just maintaining his grip on power! Just don't expect him to demonstrate any other interest when it comes to all Senate business conducted between now and May 2014. The silver lining to that news, though, is that he could end up killing any grand budget bargain.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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