Quietly, Senate Republicans have already chosen
Mitch McConnell as their next leader—because
just isn’t partisan enough. By Zachary Roth & Cliff Schecter
One of the Senate’s quirkier traditions was inaugurated in the late 1990s by then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). On certain summer Thursdays, Lott decreed, members should leave their customary dark blue and gray suits at home and, as a tribute to southern fashion, instead conduct the people’s business in pale blue seersucker. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a fellow southerner and Lott’s successor as leader, has kept the ritual alive. Lawmakers no doubt welcome the chance to don a cooler fabric in the sweltering Washington heat, but the style doesn’t always produce the best optics: On a Thursday in mid-June, many of the Republicans who gathered to discuss the situation in Iraq—where the American death toll had that day hit 2,500—looked less like U.S. senators gravely weighing issues of war and peace, and more like Pat Boone.
But in their suggestion of a party dangerously out of touch with popular sentiment, the outfits were, perhaps, appropriate. Over the previous few weeks, positions on Iraq had begun to harden in a way that left the GOP politically vulnerable. Thanks to pressure from the White House and a short-lived uptick in support for the war in the wake of the killing of the Jihadist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, House Republicans were rapidly lining up behind a resolution affirming support for President Bush’s “stay-the-course” approach. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were unifying behind a resolution of their own, backed by leadership, calling for troop withdrawals to begin this year. With the public already favoring a pullout and growing only more frustrated with the war effort every day, the coming clash between these two positions looked likely to favor Democrats.
The party was not in total agreement, however. Earlier that week, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had filed a sweeping amendment to a defense bill requiring all U.S. troops to be pulled out of Iraq by July 2007. Knowing his measure would attract little support as written, and hoping to maintain a unified Democratic message, Kerry had informed Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who was managing the defense bill, that he was not yet ready to offer it for a vote. Warner agreed to give Kerry more time, then left the Capitol building to attend a memorial service at the Pentagon for victims of 9/11.
Soon afterwards, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate number two, rose to speak, his light blue tie elegantly setting off the pinstripes. A pale, graying, and somewhat slight man of 64, McConnell looks more like a financial planner than a politician. He has an unblinking, vaguely android-like stare and gives the impression, even when speaking, of wanting to avoid being noticed. But today, he could not keep a hint of a smile from flickering across his normally impassive features. “Colleagues on the other side have said they were going to offer an amendment to advocate withdrawal by the end of the year,” he reminded the chamber. “Let’s have that debate.” With that, McConnell took Kerry’s measure, scratched out the Democrat’s name, replaced it with his own, and offered it for a vote.
The move seemed to take even McConnell’s Republican colleagues by surprise. Frist, who had just arrived on the floor—white spats complementing the seersucker—referred to the “Kerry amendment,” and appeared momentarily confused when told that the pending measure was now, in fact, the McConnell amendment. Even C-SPAN was fooled, informing viewers in an on-screen graphic that the Senate was considering the Kerry amendment. Whatever its name, the measure was rejected by a vote of 93-6. Democrats denounced what Kerry called a “fictitious vote,” and even Warner tried to distance himself from McConnell’s maneuver, informing his colleagues that it had been carried out in his absence.
McConnell, though, was unashamed. He stood, grinning, on the Senate floor for a long time, his hands clasped placidly in front of him as if at church, as colleagues came up to chat—one gave him a congratulatory pat on the back as he passed. Then he took a victory lap around the press gallery, telling reporters “it has been interesting to watch the Democrats have this debate within their caucus,” while Kerry and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) struggled to respond. As McConnell anticipated, the storyline that emerged in news reports over the next few days was that the Senate had overwhelmingly rejected a quick Iraq pullout and that the Iraq issue was uniting Republicans and dividing Democrats.
The maneuver was typical of McConnell, the Senate Majority Whip, who over a 22-year Senate career has earned a reputation as a shrewd parliamentary tactician and a ruthless partisan warrior. Those qualities are a major reason why, while the outcome of the November midterms remains up in the air, one election has already been all but decided. In January 2007, Frist will step down, and for the last two years, almost below the radar, McConnell has had the race to replace him as Senate Republican leader—and if Republicans maintain control, Senate Majority Leader—virtually locked up.
That someone with McConnell’s political style stands to assume what is arguably the third-most-powerful elected post in the federal government speaks volumes about the state of the contemporary Republican Party—and about Washington in general. McConnell is a staunch conservative and a master of procedure, but no piece of landmark legislation bears his name. Almost the only issue on which he has a national profile is campaign-finance reform, and on that, he’s known as the man who fought it at every turn. Republican strategist Grover Norquist—who once compared bipartisanship to date-rape and played a key role in creating the system that uses corporate money to maintain Republican control—told us that if he could pick the president, McConnell would be among his top three choices. (Jeb Bush would be another, and Norquist was uncharacteristically coy about the third.)
Indeed, McConnell’s political persona—with its focus on bare-knuckled partisanship and support for a money-driven legislative system—embodies the very qualities that have helped reverse Republican political fortunes so dramatically over the last year and a half, and have led directly to a series of government scandals and slipups. In uniting around Mitch McConnell, Republicans are, in effect, doubling down on the governing style that got them, and us, into this mess in the first place.
Not your father’s Senate
The Senate has long been the more deliberative, less partisan of the two houses of Congress—the saucer that’s used to cool the House’s legislation, as George Washington is said to have put it. For much of the 20th century, senators saw themselves less as creatures of their party than as independent actors—statesmen, even—charged with dispassionately weighing the issues of the day. In order to avoid having to hold countless votes on mundane procedural issues, senators often simply request, and receive, unanimous consent to proceed. Such a system requires a basic level of mutual cooperation and respect, since any recalcitrant member could, in theory, object, and thereby bring the whole chamber to a halt. Because 60 votes (at one time it was 67) are required to pass controversial legislation, leaders customarily have had little choice but to govern in a conciliatory spirit.
The first significant sign of a shift away from this model occurred in 1989 with an event over in the House: the election of Newt Gingrich as Minority Whip. Gingrich and his followers, many of them backbenchers, sought an ideological revolution to ensure that Congress was run in accordance with strict conservative principles. They viewed their party’s leadership as overly accommodating to Democrats, and sought to overturn the established seniority-based system by which the House was governed. Gingrich soon began pressuring GOP moderates not to vote with the Democrats—not only to increase his party’s unity, but also to deny moderate and conservative Democrats the cover they needed to buck their own leaders. By forcing these Democrats, many of whom represented conservative districts, to vote with their more liberal party leadership, Gingrich reasoned, he could make them unpopular at home, and ultimately beat them, creating a Republican majority. “It was a deliberate strategy of emphasizing differences and becoming intolerant of compromise,” says Steven Smith, an expert on Congress at Washington University in St. Louis.
It took a while for that strategy to filter into the Senate. Before the 1994 Republican takeover, the chamber still functioned under the assumption that you needed to work across the aisle to get anything significant accomplished. “Everything was totally bipartisan,” says a former senior Senate Democratic aide. “The first thing you did [when crafting legislation] was, ‘who’s your Republican?’ That was just how you operated.” But in the first year of the Clinton administration, conservative opinion leaders like William Kristol began urging Republicans to adopt a scorched-earth policy of opposition to the president—most prominently over his health-care plan, but also more broadly. Around the same time, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, who was eyeing a presidential run and feeling the need to prove his conservative bona fides, announced that he intended to block Clinton at every turn.
Soon after, freshmen Republican senators like Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who had cut their teeth in the House, began importing Gingrich’s tactics to their new home. Early in 1995, when moderate Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) voted against a GOP-backed constitutional amendment mandating balanced budgets (those were the days!), angry colleagues lobbied to have him stripped of the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. By 2001, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont was so fed up with the Republican move toward strict partisan discipline and away from the moderate, consensus-based deal-making on which he had always prided himself, that he left the party, briefly handing control of the Senate back to the Democrats. “I think the impetus for a lot of this came from Republicans,” says Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a co-author of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America. “And it’s been exacerbated by having Republicans with all the reins of power.”
The Senate’s shift toward increased party discipline has been accompanied by a growing willingness to use the legislative process to benefit the Republican Party’s financial backers. The more tightly the majority leadership controls the Senate’s agenda, the more likely it is that special interests will conclude that getting anything accomplished requires working with that leadership. Demands that lobbying firms hire only Republicans will carry more weight because lobbyists recognize that Republicans alone control the legislative process.
Still, until now, Senate leaders have mostly been reacting to external forces pushing the chamber in a more partisan direction, rather than leading the shift themselves. George Mitchell, the Maine Democrat who ran the Senate from 1989 to 1995, and his successors, Dole and Lott, were all fierce partisans, but they saw themselves first and foremost as dealmakers, and defined success by the number of pieces of major legislation passed on their watch.
Frist has been a very different kind of leader. As a newcomer considering a presidential run, he has had no objection to turning the chamber into an arm of the Republican governing machine. But his incompetence has prevented him from doing so. His weak grasp of Senate procedure has allowed his more senior counterpart, Harry Reid, to outmaneuver him time and again. “On many days with Frist in charge, the place is barely functioning,” says a Senate Democratic aide.
As the gambit over Kerry’s Iraq amendment showed, McConnell has no such weaknesses. He’s a master of Senate rules and procedures, and he harbors no presidential aspirations that might distract him from his job. But unlike earlier leaders, he doesn’t keep score by legislative accomplishments. For the first time in recent memory, the Senate will be run by a leader with both the ability and the desire to use the institution entirely for partisan advantage.
When Addison Mitchell McConnell was two years old, he was diagnosed with polio. Though he remained able to walk, doctors, fearing that pressure could make his legs develop abnormally, instructed his mother to keep her son off his feet for several years. Adhering to this stricture seems to have forged in McConnell a kind of dogged determination, as well as a faith that patient, disciplined effort will ultimately be rewarded. Today, the only sign of his childhood illness is a slight limp when he walks down steps.
McConnell has been in training all his life for the job he will take over next year. He caught the political bug as a young man, getting elected student body president at the University of Louisville, then student bar president at the University of Kentucky law school. After poor eyesight kept him out of Vietnam, he came to Washington to intern with Kentucky’s Republican senator, John Sherman Cooper, and eventually worked in the Justice Department during the Ford administration. In 1978, McConnell won his first elective office, county judge executive for Jefferson County, but he had his eye on bigger things.
A few years later, a group of Kentucky political journalists threw a birthday party for Louisville Times columnist Bob Hill. Hill had a famously poor relationship with McConnell, so, as a joke, Hill’s friends invited McConnell along. McConnell arrived with an attractive blonde on his arm (he would later marry Elaine Chao, now the Secretary of Labor), then proceeded, calmly and methodically, to lay out for the assembled reporters his plan to win a U.S. Senate seat in 1984 by using a socially conservative message and hard-hitting TV advertising. Few of McConnell’s listeners took him seriously—Kentucky was a solidly Democratic state, and his prospective opponent, Sen. Dee Huddleston, was popular. But McConnell followed his plan to the letter: To make the point that Huddleston was not spending enough time in the Capitol, McConnell ran TV ads that showed bloodhounds sniffing around Washington trying to pick up the senator’s scent, and ended with a shot of Huddleston’s name plaque visible on his unoccupied Senate desk. Helped by Ronald Reagan’s landslide presidential win that year, McConnell pulled off an upset victory by less than half a percentage point.
Since arriving in Washington, McConnell has used two major tactics to get to the top. He has ensured himself a steady flow of campaign dollars by going all out on behalf of the Republican Party’s financial backers—and has then used these contributions to build his own, and his party’s, political power. At the same time, he seems to understand that with his grey demeanor and indifferent communication skills, he’s poorly suited to adopt the kind of high-profile, media-friendly causes that most U.S. senators (think John McCain) compete to associate themselves with. Instead—like the short, unathletic kid who wins a place on the high-school basketball team by hustling, playing defense, and washing the uniforms—he has gained the support of his colleagues by shrewdly focusing on the less glamorous, behind-the-scenes grunt work, while acting as a frontman for unpopular causes that bring negative publicity others would rather avoid.
McConnell cut his teeth by running the Ethics and Rules committees in the ‘90s. These were low-profile positions, but ones that gave him crucial leverage with his colleagues on the quality-of-life issues—assigning office space, and overseeing the Senate restaurant, for instance—that senators care about. In 1997, he took over the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC)—a position that allowed him to decide which GOP candidates received money and other electoral help from the national party, and so helped build his support within the caucus. The following year, with voters angry over the Republican Congress’s impeachment of President Clinton, many expected the GOP to lose Senate seats. But McConnell counseled his candidates to adopt a strategy of barraging their opponents with negative advertising, and it proved enough to avoid any losses. (In the House, by contrast, Republicans lost five seats.) “He understands politics as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” says Dave Hansen, who was the NRSC’s political director under McConnell. The Kentuckian’s colleagues seem to have appreciated his contribution: When Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) challenged him for the NRSC job the following year, McConnell crushed him by 39 votes to 13.
McConnell also used the NRSC position to protect and deepen the
relationship between the Republican Party and its biggest financial backers. In 1998, John McCain was pushing legislation that would have raised cigarette taxes and increased regulation of the tobacco industry—which, aside from being by far the GOP’s biggest corporate backer, industry-wide, at the time, was also a major player in McConnell’s home state. Fearing that voters would punish Republicans in November if they appeared to be favoring their contributors over public health, McConnell at first advised Lott, then the Senate leader, to support a version of the bill. But McConnell’s calculus changed after a poll, sponsored by the tobacco industry, revealed that Americans placed a relatively low priority on fighting smoking. Republican senators up for reelection, he concluded, could oppose the bill with impunity. And at a closed-door meeting of the GOP Senate caucus, McConnell, in his role as NRSC chair, stood up to announce that the tobacco industry had agreed to run ads in support of Republicans, defending them against Democratic charges of killing the bill. “We can walk away from this,” McConnell now advised Lott, according to Time magazine. Days later, McCain’s bill was dead.
McConnell also knows how to use threats. When a group of Republican senators signed onto a campaign-finance reform measure in the late ‘90s, McConnell, in his position as NRSC chair, advised them that they could expect no electoral support from the committee unless they switched their position. At least one, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) did so after receiving McConnell’s warning. Then in 1999, when the Committee for Economic Development (CED)—a trade group representing large corporations—announced its support for a ban on soft money, McConnell wrote a furious letter, on NRSC letterhead, to leaders of companies belonging to CED, denouncing the group’s “all-out campaign to eviscerate private-sector participation in politics,” and urging them to quit the organization. “I hope you will resign from CED,” he scribbled at the bottom of one copy. Many recipients of the letter saw in it an implicit threat that, unless they withdrew from CED and stopped supporting reform efforts, their companies would receive unfavorable treatment from Congress.
The campaign-finance fight also brought out McConnell’s willingness—even eagerness—to absorb negative attention on behalf of colleagues. For all of his personal colorlessness, he appeared to relish his role as the bete noir of the reform movement. After the good government group Common Cause labeled him the “Darth Vader of campaign-finance reform” in 1997, he opened a press conference by declaring, with a hint of a smile, “Darth Vader has arrived.” But the humor concealed a serious purpose. McConnell understood at the time that many GOP senators feared the end of soft money but were afraid of the negative publicity that opposing McCain’s crusade would bring. By volunteering to play the bad cop—confident about his own reelection prospects as the most powerful political figure in an increasingly red state (see “Bluegrass Baron”)—McConnell gained crucial support within the caucus. “There were a lot of his colleagues who supported the same goal he had, who were appreciative that somebody was out there doing it and they didn’t have to,” says a former Senate leadership aide.
McConnell has always contended that his position on campaign-finance reform derives from a belief in the importance of freedom of expression. Opponents of campaign-finance regulations argue that money is a form of speech, and banning or limiting it therefore contravenes the First Amendment. His claim to be standing on principle is supported by a history of voting—in defiance of his party leadership—against efforts to pass a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, on similar grounds of free speech. But in 1999 he suggested a more partisan motive, telling The Washington Post, “Take away soft money and we wouldn’t be in the majority in the House and the majority in the Senate, and couldn’t win back the White House.”
Whatever his motivation, McConnell’s full-throated defense of the right of politicians to take unlimited amounts of money from corporations helped make him a popular man among Senate Republicans, and put him in a position to make his move into the top ranks of leadership. In the shakeup that saw Frist replace Lott as leader in January 2003, McConnell was elected whip. But he didn’t stop there: Frist soon made clear that he planned to serve only two two-year terms. By early 2004, McConnell had begun his campaign for the top job, meeting discreetly with members, listening to their concerns, calling in his chits from the campaign-finance reform battle, and asking straight out for his colleagues’ support. “He has systematically and methodically gone to every member. The only real purpose of that meeting is for him to make sure that he’s got that vote,” says Tripp Baird, a former aide to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) during this period. “When we came to town, same thing. I mean he went to all of the freshmen. The first meeting with them was about this. He was real quick. He went in and secured the vote. Done.”
In addition, over the last five election cycles, his Bluegrass Political Action Committee has contributed to at least 40 of his 54 current Senate GOP colleagues. In September 2004, the month when he emerged as the only viable contender for the leader’s job, McConnell donated $250,000 from his campaign account to the NRSC, then the largest ever donation to the committee. (In return, he received a gold-plated trophy from NRSC chair George Allen.) By the end of the month, McConnell had used his PAC to donate more money to his colleagues than any other GOP senator except Frist. “Having a strong leadership PAC is very important in securing a leadership position, because senators remember that,” says Brian Darling, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Senate liaison. “When they’re in trouble out on the campaign trail, when a senator gives them money…that is appreciated by senators.”
But it’s not just the amount that it has distributed that makes McConnell’s leadership PAC noteworthy—it’s the donors from whom it has raised money. McConnell has essentially abandoned the traditional small-donor direct-mail Republican fundraising model, in favor of large corporate contributors seeking legislative favors. Last year, the Bluegrass PAC did not raise a single dollar from a contributor who gave less than $200. By contrast, almost half of the money raised by Frist in the same year came from such contributors.
The strategy paid off. During the summer of 2004, Sen. Santorum openly expressed his interest in the leadership position—though he allowed that, “I am not as laser-beamed as Senator McConnell.” But by the end of September, Santorum, realizing that McConnell had already locked up enough support to be a virtual shoo-in, declared that he would instead seek the whip’s job. Since then, Trent Lott has publicly mused about making a run for his old post. Lott, an experienced legislator and smooth floor operator, retains a surprising degree of sympathy and respect amongst his colleagues, many of whom felt his punishment for expressing a fondness for segregation was excessive (overt racism is apparently low on many Senate Republicans’ list of sins). But no knowledgeable observers see Lott as a real threat to McConnell. Still, the Kentuckian is taking nothing for granted. Since November 2004, he has given over $300,000 to the campaigns and PACs of his Senate colleagues and GOP challengers. Two months before the election, he has already given the maximum amount to almost every Republican Senate candidate in a competitive race.
A recent press conference at the Capitol, on the subject of energy legislation, gave some hint of the differences between McConnell and the man he will replace. Frist—a tall, immaculately coiffed, square-jawed Tennessee surgeon—seemed almost to glow as he preened before the cameras. Behind him and a little to the side, his deputy stood staring impassively into space. With his pale complexion and gray, shapeless suit, McConnell appeared to exist in black and white. When it was his turn at the microphone, he used a dry, deliberate, and slightly monotonous speaking style to praise a colleague for his work on the bill, then quickly stepped aside.
He may not look as good as Frist, but many observers expect a more efficiently run Senate under McConnell. “I think you will not see Harry Reid run ‘Roberts Rules of Order’ circles around McConnell,” says Chuck Todd, the editor of National Journal’s Hotline, and a veteran Washington political observer. Indeed, of the few legislative successes that Frist has achieved, two of them—bills making it harder to bring class-action lawsuits and to file for bankruptcy—occurred when McConnell played a leading role. And it’s no accident that both were among the most eagerly sought items of the party’s corporate backers.
McConnell will also likely do more than Frist to help Republicans maintain control of the Senate. Some observers say they expect him to pressure certain of his colleagues with safer seats to share more of their campaign funds, with the goal of preserving or increasing the GOP majority.
Already, McConnell has created a program that solicits money from top donors and sends it to candidates in the most critical races. In November 2004, it gave the maximum $10,000 to every Senate Republican incumbent facing an even remotely challenging race.
If Republicans do hold onto the Senate—and they might not—McConnell will likely have a smaller majority than Frist has enjoyed. A leader hoping to get legislation passed would probably respond by being more conciliatory toward the minority—but Republicans didn’t pick McConnell because of his talent for conciliation. “I think he’ll be more likely to pick a fight,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Darling. With a confrontational Republican leader, a narrow Senate majority, and an unpopular, lame duck president, the next two years don’t figure to see much landmark legislation passed. Instead, if the past is any guide, Majority Leader McConnell will focus only on measures that support Republican power or drive a wedge between Democrats, and will do everything possible to keep campaign dollars flowing to the GOP. But if and when that happens, don’t blame McConnell. He’ll only be doing what he was elected to do.
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Zachary Roth is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Cliff Schecter is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and a weekly guest on “The Young Turks” radio program. He worked on Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and on the campaign of Sen. McConnell’s Democratic challenger in 2002.