It's a long shot, but if Republicans pull off an inside straight in November and pick up the 10 Senate seats needed to grab the majority, GOP senators almost certainly would make the soft-spoken but tough-as-nails Mitch McConnell of Kentucky the next majority leader. McConnell, 68, the minority leader, wouldn't bite when asked what his agenda would be if his party gains control. Though confident, he doesn't want to be presumptuous.
In an interview on August 2 in his spacious office in the Capitol, the bespectacled lawmaker made it clear that he thinks that President Obama has steered the country in a far-left direction, out of step with voters. So it's a safe bet that bruising clashes, especially over domestic policy, will follow if McConnell becomes the Senate's top leader -- at least until both sides decide that it's in their interest to compromise. Such deal-making took place in the 1990s after President Clinton was confronted with newly installed Republican majorities in the House and Senate. But given the level of partisanship in Washington and the anger in the country today, bipartisan deal-cutting is hard to imagine. McConnell also defended his party's stances in policy battles with the White House over nominations and on legislation dealing with the oil spill in the Gulf. He also explained the strong opposition of most Republicans to the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
NJ: Four years ago, you told National Journal that the congressional elections would not be a referendum on President Bush but a choice between two candidates. Two years ago, you told NJ the elections would be about the future, not the past or Bush. What about this year's midterms?
McConnell: I was doing the best I could in a very difficult situation. Everything I said then could apply to the Democrats right now. When the environment is against you, you have two choices, really. You try to localize the race and make it a choice between the two candidates, and you hope that your financial advantage will overcome the atmospheric problem, which is moving the election in the opposite direction. We did the best we could, not only with the arguments but with the resources we had to deploy. It didn't work.
We will find out this fall whether they can deploy both the resources and the arguments more effectively than we did when we were in a similar situation in '06 and '08. It's hard to score on defense. It's like sports. It's better to have the ball and head toward the goal line. While we are using sports metaphors, let me also say I have not spiked the ball in the end zone yet. There are three months to go. If the election were tomorrow, it would be hard for us not to have a good day, but it is not.
NJ: How will the Democrats attack?
McConnell: Every cycle since McCain-Feingold [the campaign finance law passed in 2002], they have had a pretty substantial financial advantage. I think they will again, not only among their party committees but also outside groups. Move-On and the unions are the most conspicuous examples of that. That's what they are counting on -- financial superiority and demonizing our candidates to the maximum extent possible.
NJ: You endorsed Senate candidate Trey Grayson, who lost the Republican primary in Kentucky to Rand Paul, who is backed by the tea party. NJ reported last week on a "tea party paradox" -- that even as the country is growing more conservative, Republicans are not benefiting. Does it concern you that the tea party is doing so well?
McConnell: If you look at the party generic ballot question, it looks very good. It's not whether they identify with you; it's whether they are willing to vote for you. What motivates tea party activists? Spending, debt, Washington takeover, taxes. The surveys I look at -- and I look at virtually all of them -- indicate that that is exactly what's on the mind of political independents.
So even though every independent is not as active as a tea party member, the views that motivate tea party activism are very similar to the views that are motivating not only Republican voters but independent voters as well. And they don't have to fall in love with the Republican brand to understand that if you think this administration has gone quite far enough and pushed the country too far to the left, the way to have a midcourse correction is to change the makeup of the Senate and the House.
NJ: In your 2008 campaign, Democrats wanted to extract a pound of flesh. It seemed to be a response to the defeat of their Senate leader, Tom Daschle, in 2004. So they came after you hard. Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is on the ballot this year. Will Republicans make it a priority to defeat him?
McConnell: Our strategy is to try to win races and not to single out anybody in particular. In my case, I don't think they really thought they could beat me until the last month or so. I ended up winning by a very comfortable margin -- the third-largest margin I ever had. I think they came after me to make a point -- not because they initially thought I was in any particular trouble. I think Harry [Reid]'s dilemma is that his numbers just haven't been very good.
This year, unlike '06 and '08, when we were entirely on defense, we have a chance in a lot of places. There are 11 states right now where we are competitive. I am not predicting victory everywhere, but [11 states] where there is currently a Democratic senator: California, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Dakota, Arkansas, and Wisconsin. We are on offense. I think Harry's dilemma is that his numbers have been pretty puny, and that encourages opposition.
NJ: If you take the majority, what will you do right off the top?
McConnell: I am not going to take that hypothetical. As far as I will go is that if the election was tomorrow, we'd have a pretty good day. But I am not going to predict the outcome of the election, nor will I announce any kind of agenda on August 2.
NJ: A lot of folks say this place is broken. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has cited the case of Martha Johnson, who was nominated to be GSA administrator as an example of how much the Senate needs to be repaired. Noting that not many people had ever heard of Johnson, Gibbs added that Republicans still held her nomination up for 10 months. He said that 21 times in the first year of the Obama administration, the president's nominees have been blocked for varying periods of time but are later confirmed by unanimous or overwhelming votes. He charged Republicans are simply trying to score political points. Is the Senate broken?
McConnell: No. Members frequently on both sides hold up a nominee because of some concern they have. It is more likely to be done if you are in the minority because the administration is not of your party and less likely to address your concern. This kind of give-and-take I have seen go on before. It is not any more dramatic now than it has been in the past, and this president has not been treated worse than the last one was. But it is always maddening to the majority and maddening to every president.
I must say the president even made it worse by recessing a guy like [Craig] Becker [to the National Labor Relations Board], who was defeated in the Senate. We had a vote. He was defeated on a bipartisan basis. And recessing a guy like [Donald] Berwick [to oversee Medicare and Medicaid] without any hearings at all and with the chairman of the Finance Committee [Max Baucus, D-Mont.] saying he didn't think he should have been recessed. That is not the kind of action that is designed to, shall I say, engender a cooperative reaction on the part of the minority. I think we can statistically show you that it is not worse for President Obama. He hasn't been singled out more for shoddy treatment than it has been in the past.
NJ: The debate over liability in the wake of this disastrous oil spill -- why shouldn't a company that makes a gazillion dollars drilling in deep, deep water be exposed totally in terms of liability when their accidents wreck the livelihoods of lots of folks?
McConnell: They should. But you have to have a rational liability policy or you will only have Hugo Chavez and a few others drilling in the Gulf. In other words, if you have unlimited liability without regard to how deep you are drilling and other things -- we have a more sensible liability provision in our alternative. With regard to this particular incident, it is irrelevant because BP is going to pay for it all anyway. We are fortunate in the sense that they are so big that they can do it, but you don't want to have nobody in the Gulf except a handful of mega, mega companies. Otherwise, you are going to have a huge hit on employment. Speaking of hits on employment, in our alternative we lift the moratorium -- which if you listen to the senators down along the Gulf, including the Democratic senator from Louisiana [Mary Landrieu] is in some ways a bigger hit on the economy than the spill itself.
NJ: But it is a temporary moratorium...
McConnell: How temporary is it? They keep extending it.
NJ: To the rational observer, there has been a disaster -- why not figure out exactly why it happened before you allow...
McConnell: Well, we need to do that. The president has a commission, which I don't particularly like because he picked all five [commissioners] and most of them are biased against drilling at all. We have an alternative that was approved on a bipartisan basis in the Energy Committee by Sen. John Barrasso [R-Wyo.] that is more balanced and would have subpoena power. I do think we need to look at it. We need to look at the safety standards and we also need to look at what happened -- not only what happened with BP but what happened with the federal government's response to it. Once the oil got away from that site, it was the federal government's responsibility to clean it up. We need to look at it and we need to look at it with a balanced independent commission -- not just a hand-picked group that the president picked. Most have a bias against drilling offshore in any event, under any circumstances.
But the liability provision is important. What we try to do in the alternative is give the president himself the authority to establish the liability limits based upon a lot of other conditions. With regard to the current spill, it is irrelevant because BP is big enough and is going to cover every aspect of it.
NJ: Republicans have stressed the growing debt in hammering Democrats. Yet if the Bush tax cuts are extended, as Republicans favor, it will cost a lot of loot and drive up the deficit, won't it?
McConnell: Well, the core question is how do you get the economy growing again? Does anybody seriously believe that raising taxes on the top two grades, which captures 50 percent of small business income and will impact 25 percent of the workforce, on the heels of the health care taxes that they already have, on the heels of things like these 1099 forms that they will have to send out to every vendor with whom they do more than $600 business -- all of that is a job-killing exercise. We need to quit doing that stuff, not raise taxes in the middle of a recession.
Look, we have had a year and a half experience with government-to-government stimulus. We borrowed a bunch of money -- counting interest, almost a trillion dollars -- most of which we use either to hire federal employees or to send down to state governments so they wouldn't have to lay off state employees. Then we came back and we are trying to do it again with Medicaid and with teachers. That is basically borrowed money, or even if they figured a way to pay for it -- they may have figured a way to pay for it -- you are still sending money down to other public employees. So if you are a public employee you probably made it through the last year and a half better than the private sector, which has shed 3 million jobs since the president came to office. So I think the American people have a pretty good sense of what we are opposed to. We had very principled arguments against all of these things and almost total opposition to most of them.
NJ: Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court will be voted on this week. [The Senate voted to confirm Kagan on July 5.] Your Republican colleague Lindsey Graham quoted Alexander Hamilton, who said that the Senate should have "a special and strong reason" to deny confirmation of a nominee. Republican Miguel Estrada endorsed her. [President George W. Bush's nomination of Estrada to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals was blocked by a Democratic filibuster.] Republican Ken Starr endorsed her. Yet you and most Republicans opposed her. Have we reached a point where votes are all about ideology and not about qualifications?
McConnell: I can only speak for myself. I sat there and listened to her make her first argument before the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case in which she argued that it would be OK for the government to ban pamphlets. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Thomas Paine and the rest would roll over in their graves if they heard that. My view is that that issue alone would warrant opposition.
The next question you probably are going to ask is whether some procedural device might be used. The president has filibustered a Supreme Court nominee. The vice president has filibustered a Supreme Court nominee. The majority leader has filibustered a Supreme Court nominee, and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee has filibustered a Supreme Court nominee. I have not. Neither has [Judiciary Committee ranking member] Jeff Sessions. So it is clear that that precedent that it is possible [to filibuster] is on the table; they did it with Miguel Estrada, ironically, and then tried to do it to [Supreme Court nominee] Sam Alito. It didn't work. I wouldn't presume that any particular procedural hurdle would be required of this nominee -- no decision has been made. But members are taking a position. They are going to speak... over 3 days and then have a vote.
NJ: What has been the biggest surprise of this legislative session?
McConnell: The depth of ideological commitment to the far-left agenda. As the president's chief of staff famously said, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," and they just can't help themselves. We saw that on health care, when the public was overwhelmingly opposed to the bill. They said, "We are going to do it anyway." We know that people don't feel good about [the Troubled Asset Relief Program], for example. They have decided to push the country as far to the left as they can for as long as they can.
The story I like to tell is that my dad was a foot soldier in World War II, and he was way down at the bottom under Gen. [George] Patton. Patton loved to have press conferences, which frequently got him in trouble. One time he called a press conference and said, "I am going to take a certain town if it takes a truckload of dog tags." It filtered down to the soldiers, and Dad said it was not a terribly inspiring message if it was your dog tag he was talking about.
Applying that story to this administration, I think the president wants to move the country as far to the left as he can for as long as he can, if it takes a truckload of dog tags. Now what you are seeing up here is that some of the dogs are getting nervous about giving up their tags. A lot of his problems lately have not been just us. It's been on his own side: queasiness about excessive spending and debt, push-back from the left on the war -- 100 of them over in the House voted against funding for the troops. While he is trying to make history, they are afraid they will be history.
NJ: What has been your most satisfying moment in this session?
McConnell: From my perspective, a lot of damage has been done to the country. The stimulus is a huge mistake. The level of debt is a huge mistake. The health care bill is a disaster for the country. Those have been disappointing. What has been uplifting is the public's response to our principled arguments against these initiatives. I am hopeful and optimistic that we will have a midcourse correction this November.
This article appears in the August 7, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.