"You think we’re this dumb?": Inside the sick, cynical mind of Mitch McConnell

The man who may be our next Senate majority leader is everything wrong with Washington, Alec MacGillis tells Salon

Published October 1, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell                                        (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

If the predictions coming from basically every reputable election prognosticator hold, Mitch McConnell, longtime Kentucky senator and mastermind of the GOP's strategy to oppose President Obama with maximal obstruction, will soon become the 22nd majority leader in the history of the Senate of the United States. This is something McConnell's wanted for his whole career, former advisers say. It would represent a crowning achievement in a decades-long career that's been defined by cutthroat partisan politics — and precious little else.

Or at least that's how Alec MacGillis, senior editor at the New Republic and author of a new e-book on McConnell, "The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell," sees it. The McConnell we see in the book starts off as a relatively milquetoast moderate Republican — the type of GOPers that ran the party for about the first 20 years of the postwar era, but are now more or less extinct — who comes to jettison nearly everything he claimed to believe in order to never stop being a senator from the Bluegrass State.

Salon recently spoke with MacGillis to discuss the book, why he believes McConnell is deserving of close scrutiny, how he represents some of the worst traits of modern politics, and why he's likely to win his ongoing reelection race. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Besides finding that the seemingly dull McConnell was actually a complicated enough figure to warrant a book, what was the most surprising thing you discovered while researching the man who may be our next Senate majority leader? 

I was really surprised just by how far to the right he had swung over the years. That was new to me. I knew he started out more moderate than we now know him to be, but I didn’t realize he was practically liberal, almost one of the old-style liberal Republicans, the John Sherman Cooper mold. I thought it was important that people get a better sense of that.

Why do you think that's important? Don't politicians change their positions all the time?

He represented, even at the outset, two things that I wanted to get a better sense of: One was the transformation of the Republican Party over the years. I had never found it satisfying that we say now in Washington, “What’s gone wrong in Washington? Why aren’t things working?” And the answer has often been,“Well, the Republican Party has changed. It’s no longer what it was.” And that’s sort of the stock answer, that things are the way they are now because the Republican Party is the way it is. That’s true to a certain degree, but it’s never been a really satisfying answer because it doesn’t help you understand how it got to be that way. So I saw Mitch McConnell and his transformation as being a very, very good window into that transformation and just a way to understand how it actually evolved to that point.

The other half of it for me, the larger meaningfulness in Mitch McConnell, even before I got into the project, was that he just represented the sickness of the political culture in Washington in a way that goes beyond party lines — just the rise of the permanent campaign mind-set which I just have, over my years of covering Washington now, become so demoralized by. I saw his story as a way to kind of illuminate just how damaging that mind-set has been for the country.

Without making you give away the good stuff in the book for free, can you tell me what conclusions you reached?

In a way, what I kind of came around to in the end was a melding of those two themes, where one kind of helped explain the other. How did Mitch McConnell change ... from a guy who was, as late as the 1970s, still wooing the AFL-CIO and quietly snuffing out antiabortion bills in the Louisville government, to just a few years later pretty quickly shifting to lockstep with the Reagan revolution, after having not supported Reagan in 1976 or 1980?

What I came around to is that it was Mitch McConnell’s overweening desire to win, and fear of losing — and desire to not just win but win big and be safe, politically safe, in Washington — that led him to shift so dramatically. If you were to pick one kind of key moment, it was '84, when he was elected by a very, very, very slim margin against the incumbent Democrat, whereas Ronald Reagan was elected by a huge margin in Kentucky, and McConnell had clearly come in only thanks to Reagan's coattails.

He was sort of embarrassed by that fact and declined to acknowledge it publicly, and just seems to have drawn from that experience, his near loss, which quite possibly might have ended his career right there. He seems to have concluded from that that he needed to get in line with where the Republican Party was going under Reagan, that he needed to adapt himself to the regional realignment of the Republican Party as it was moving from a party that still had liberal, moderate members ... to a party that was far more Southern.

To understand how “moderate," "reasonable” Republicans like Mitch McConnell had evolved to the point where they have — yes, there are systemic explanations for that ... but you also have to look at these very personal decisions made by individual politicians like Mitch McConnell and the character of those politicians as they’ve decided to put their ... longevity and their stature and their station in the Senate over any kind of conviction or belief.

With so many disposable values, is there anything that's consistent in what you saw of McConnell's career? To give you a sense of what I mean: I often find that even especially cynical or hollow politicians have one or two issues that they care deeply about and perhaps even tell themselves they're serving by being so malleable on everything else. Nixon, for example, always wanted to see himself as the guy who helped design a stable postwar geopolitical order — that was his lodestar. Does McConnell have any similar overriding ideals or ambitions?

That’s the ultimate question about him. At the bottom of all this, if he becomes majority leader, what’s it all been for? And no, I don’t have an answer to that question, because I’m not really sure there is an answer to that question.

I was talking to someone in Louisville recently and was asking him this question — what is McConnell going to leave behind? What is he proud of? — and this person said McConnell really had trouble answering this question. It has just, over time, become for him simply about winning for winning’s sake. It was so striking, that recent Times Magazine profile by Jonathan Martin, who did get McConnell to speak with him briefly, where McConnell keeps harping on the fact that he is “8-0” in his career. He was talking about his career in public service the way a [baseball pitcher] might talk about his record. It has become all about those wins, about the next cycle.

The one issue, of course, that he has actually staked himself out on, and certainly made a legacy on, is campaign finance reform — which is so telling, because it’s an issue that is, itself, all about the game and process. It’s inextricably linked with elections, and yes, he has framed his opposition to campaign finance reform as a constitutional matter, but as I lay out in a little section of the book, that was even, by estimation of some of his Republican colleagues, an opportunistic framing.

All along, he had come to be opposed to campaign finance reform for very pragmatic reasons: namely, that he saw it helped him greatly as a not-naturally-gifted politician to have lots and lots of money in his races, and it helped the Republican Party ... very much. Early on, he was almost admirably candid about his pragmatic reasons for opposing campaign finance reform. Only later did he shrewdly give it a constitutional cast to give it more legitimacy.

But beyond that?

What is there? I think that’s the question that’s always going to hang over him. That’s what you think when you go to visit the sort of shrine he’s built to himself at Louisville, in the basement of the university library there. There’s this whole shrine, and it’s pretty much all about the campaigns. In his defense (almost), you think of his most famous quote from 2010, where he’s asked what the GOP's goals are after the midterms ... and he answered, bluntly, Our number one priority is going to be keeping Barack Obama from being reelected. Everyone sort of gasped at that — it sounded so crude and ad hominem — but I would argue that it was not all that ad hominem against Obama, that it was simply a very, very clear enunciation of his mind-set all along. It’s always about the next cycle.

I guess that means he's currently in his element, locked in this close-ish race with Alison Lundergan Grimes. As you've been watching him this cycle, both in his primary match with the Tea Party-backed Matt Bevin as well as his current race against Grimes, have you seen him following the usual ruthless script he uses when campaigning? Or is the fact that he's so close to becoming Senate majority leader changing the way he's running his race?

I think he’s following the usual script to the extent that he's doing whatever you have to do to protect yourself, which is what you saw in the race against Bevin. Here he is against a not particularly formidable challenger and yet he just pulls out all the stops in protecting himself ... hiring Jesse Benton — which is such a transparently defensive and disingenuous move, really, to the point where you have the wonderful tape of Benton admitting his own acceptance of that job was no less cynical than McConnell’s hiring of him ... That move was to keep in the fold some of the Rand Paul/Tea Party folks in Kentucky, and it could not have been more transparently cynical.

Then moving on to the general election, the disingenuousness of the back and forth with Grimes — especially over Obamacare. For him to have no [compunction] about trying to [argue] that you could keep the good parts of the law, even as he vows to “repeal it root and branch,” is just pretty stunning.

Side point: That Grimes has not been able to capitalize on that disingenuousness is, I think, a real problem. Even if Kentucky is very torn about how it feels about Obamacare, it seems like one could’ve made an issue about his disingenuousness on that point and basically said, “Come on, Senator McConnell, who do you think we are? Do you think we’re this dumb?"

Before I let you go, let's assume the predictions are right and the GOP wins the Senate this year — and McConnell also wins reelection. Is there any chance that because he's so obsessed with winning for its own sake and holding onto power he'd run the Senate more prudently than I think many of us right now expect? Any chance he decides getting too radical in the coming years could lead to a Democratic resurgence and so opts for relative moderation instead?

I’m skeptical, only because it would mean he is abandoning the strategy of the last few years, which was founded on this very shrewd, very cynical insight that the more things are dysfunctional in Washington, the more that redounds to the benefit of Republicans.

This happens for three reasons: 1. Because the Democrats are the party in the White House, so if things are broken in Washington, they take the most blame for that; 2. Because the Democrats are the party that believes in government, so the more government appears to be broken, the more that undermines Democrats instead of Republicans; and 3. Barack Obama’s whole overriding goal coming into Washington was to transcend this kind of gamesmanship, and to the extent that he’s been unable to do that in the face of McConnell’s obstinacy, it’s made Obama look like a failure.

So that’s been the strategy for the first six years [of Obama's presidency], and McConnell and his allies in the Senate have been pretty open about that. I was struck just how much people like [former GOP Sen.] Bob Bennett were willing to speak openly to me about that for the book.

The only thing that might change that with McConnell is the fact of him being in the majority somehow changing that calculus in his mind, so that perhaps he might worry that, Gosh, now that we have both chambers of Congress in our control, that continued total dysfunction works less to our benefit.  ... I have no way of knowing to what extent he does make that calculus.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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