What Motivates Mitch McConnell?
The from New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is the daily. Today over the past decade, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has emerged as a skilled legislative war obstructing President Obama's and enabling President Trump's. But what does McConnell himself, actually believe? It's Tuesday February. February twenty sixteen Mitch McConnell is on vacation. He's just arrived at the airport in Saint Thomas with his wife. Elaine Chao Senate is on recess Valentine's Day or thereabouts. They get off the plane, and he gets the news on his phone that judge Santon Scalia has died on the quail hunting trip in Texas. Though Chuck down, and I began to think about our interaction with each other over the years. You know, we were not fast round, but we would get better every once in a while. But. Mama turned to the practical situation taste Mitch McConnell has a tremendous amount of power in this situation. Charles homes is the political editor of the times magazine. He's the Senate majority leader in one of the things that the Senate majority leader controls as the calendar for appointments, so he can use his power as Senate majority leader if you want to keep President Obama from filling the seat if you're some me and most of my colleagues who would rather see America right of center left of center at the top of the list. If you wanna have a long-term impact would be on the court, and he knows, you know, the supreme court has been just astronomical important to conservatives for better part of generation, and he knows there's going to be a huge amount of attention on his decision here. Whether he's going to sort of let the normal process run its course, or whether he's going to do something more extreme hair that nobody in his position really his done. I was if the shoe is on the other foot. Would Democratic Senate confirm supreme court nominate of a Republican president in the middle of presidential election here. I knew the answer would be no. And so. Oxen out they say the next president should. And he makes this decision that he is going to keep President Obama from filling the seat not only through the end of his term. But also through the end of the election in the hopes that Republican will win and that he will have deprived the democrat Obama from having appointed a supreme court Justice, exactly. I think that's the most consequential thing I've ever done. I think you've you. This really is sort of the culminating act of his work as Senate majority leader. So McConnell sees this as his crowning moment. I wonder what that tells you about his motivations especially in his role as a Republican leader in this moment. I was really curious about this motivations to because there are a lot less apparent with McConnell than they are with a lot of other politicians, always important. Remember unless you win the election. You don't get to make a policy wonders like falls losers. Go do something else. And he plays cards, very close to his vest, and isn't really a demonstrative figure in any way, various things like and very unknowable. Yeah. Very unknowable of the session. Go. Oh. You given what they have to work with always just hopeful spoke to him for quite a long time. We had several interviews ran over the course of several hours and a lot of people around him and a lot of many opponents over the years. Also ahead sort of a very random question to begin with which came out of the conversation. I had where does the story for you? And I guess for him again. Well, he grew up in the rural south and moved to Louisville boy for his father's work. He was an only child and he grew up kind of by his own admission somewhat lonely kid at first and Louisville, and he was really into baseball as a kid and realized he wasn't ever going to be that great added and edit really kind of alarmingly young age, which is interests over to politics. I was fascinated by the sun from early age and hope that I might have an opportunity to serve your something. By the time. He was in high school, he had really sort of discovered an aptitude for politics and an interest in politics, and he ran these incredibly premeditated carefully orchestrated campaigns for student government, even he was basically, a pretty full-fledged politician. I think by the time he graduated from college and had decided this was the thing that he wanted to do at this point, what were McConnell's politics. It's interesting. I mean, they are kind of difficult untangle he'd notes early admirations for Goldwater, but he also conservative. Yeah. Very conservative. But at the same time, he was considered an ally by abortion rights activists in Louisville at the time and his first wife was a feminist scholar. Who later ran feminist archive at Smith, College and collaborated with Gloria Steinem. He had also spoken on behalf of civil rights in college. But when I was young. Was issue. Our generation. Shor-short dealing with America's original sense. So at the start it seems like he's a pretty moderate to even progressive Republican. I think you could classify him as a moderate Republican early in his career by the time. He himself was elected to the Senate in nineteen Eighty-four. The Republican party had changed dramatically at this point, the real gravitational center of the party shifted towards the conservative movement that had been powered by Reagan's candidacy, and you see McConnell's politics very much sort of changed to match times. He was someone who is very ambitious and wanted to get somewhere in the Republican party. And I think he understood then he had been very much from the sort of old moderate wing of the party in that party was no longer in a position of power in nineteen eighty five. So with that in mind, what does McConnell do once he settles into the Senate? So he spends his first couple years trying to find his footing as I think most freshmen senators do and it's around this time that handful of democratic senators have started really educating on campaign finance reform. These days the American people are going to wake up, and they're gonna ask themselves as been good for this country that the cost of running the United States Senate has gone from six hundred thousand dollars to three million dollars in ten years. All these questions are sort of in the air point during McConnell's first term and McConnell realizes that this is an opening for him. I think he understood it as an issue that people in his party and often Democrats also in congress felt like they had to be behind campaign finance reform, but didn't necessarily really want to be behind it that interesting to listen to some of the speeches on the other side that equate money with evil in politics seems to me that capitalistic society like ours money is not necessarily evil in McConnell, very shrewdly for first term Senator understood that standing up against this. I of campaign finance reform was going to win a lot of friends in his caucus in the Senate and at the same time it was going to get him beaten up. But in a way that wasn't gonna leave a lasting. Impression on his career. He would be lambasted by aditorial pages and voters if you ask them all said, they favored campaign finance reform. But it wasn't something that they were going to vote somebody out of office on. And so he rightly calculated that he could make himself the face of the opposition to campaign finance reform at the same time. He would be earning. The gratitude of many people in the Senate who really didn't wanna see these bills into law some Ikano thinks to himself. I could be the guy who says the thing everybody else wants to say, but his frayed to say, which is that I'm opposed to real change the campaign finance system, and in the process, I will win over Republican colleagues in a lasting way that we'll probably benefit me. Exactly. Did this plan work? Yes. A note. Welcome you to the evening's programming for about the next forty five minutes, or so we'll be discussing campaign financing which has been discussed on the floor of the US Senate the last few days. Our guest is Senator Mitch McConnell. Republican from Kentucky TV Fairmount Zik. Concern you that candidates for congress spent four hundred fifty million dollars running for office last year not particularly because being attacked in details. But he was also being profiled by newspapers you've been described as humorless. Well, have you heard that before once or twice there's bipartisanship because you've got Darth Vader on the Senate side, Mitch McConnell, he earned the nickname dearth baiter from a number of people, and he kind of leaned into this role as the sort of Bill on campaign finance reform would appear with a lightsaber occasionally in public. Look, I think her bother doesn't because I think I'll let me tell you why. Except the fact that you can't make everybody happy. And meanwhile, while he was doing this. He was learning a lot of these things about how the Senate worked and how small number of senators or even an individual Senator could really slow down the process by which bills moved through the Senate. So this dryest of senators Mitch McConnell, not at all. That charismatic is slowly figuring out have nipple late the Senate and win over his colleagues by doing something they won't which is to essentially take the heat take one for the team on a major campaign finance. Exactly, I think he was willing to play the villain. If that was what was required of the moment. And in this moment that was what was required to advance his party's agenda. In the long run campaign. Finance reform did pass, you know, there is this Bill. Mccain feingold. That was his landmark campaign finance Bill. The did pass into law in two thousand to a decade and a half after this battle began. But the reason the battle took a decade and a half was very much because of Mitch McConnell and along the way he really made himself into a name and his party. And it's only a few years after that that he becomes the Republican leader in the Senate new Republican leaders this morning leadership elections held on the hill. Mitch McConnell there. The new minority leader what does he decide to do with that power? Will he really kind of comes into his own when Obama becomes president? Because suddenly he's in a massively diminished Republican minority in the Senate facing a very popular incoming democratic president. But he does have a few of these lessons that he's learned from the campaign finance fight one is that if you keep your entire caucus together in a very disciplined way, you can accomplish a lot the other is that the very workings of the Senate offer all sorts of -tunities to slow things down. And he started to use those. Against the Obama agenda. Most prominently the Affordable Care ACT's we have already documented a record of Republicans attempting to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. Senate Republicans made it clear that they will continue to fight to kill this Bill. They would spend weeks negotiating language for some of these provisions in the Bill with the democratic committee chairs and then when it's time for an actual vote. The support would sort of magically melt away, and meanwhile, several weeks of negotiation is gone. The other thing he does during the Obama years as he starts holding up all these appointments of the president gets to make have to be confirmed by the Senate, so pretty soon. There are all these vacancies cropping up all over the Obama administration. There ambbassador ships that haven't been filled board appointments that haven't been filled, but especially judge vis Republican minority under Mitch McConnell has used the filibuster over and over again day in and day out time and time again to block a record number of of executive engine digital appointments or nearly presidents appoint these judges or visit matter, of course, but. That's the only becomes very to the point where it was affecting the functioning government. They turn the Senate executive calendar into a nomination obituary column for thirty other judicial nominees obstruction in the Senate is completely unprecedented. This McConnell seconds, turn in the public. I really is the sort of villainous figure the Democrats he becomes the sort of arch nemesis. Been involved in structure. There was a point to he's sort of super size. These sort of obstructive tendencies of the Senate and made it the thing that you do when you're in the minority. So Charlie it seems like McConnell's strategy is to paralyze the Senate under a democratic president until the country might elect a Republican president who would then enact legislation and nominate judges that would serve the Republican agenda and McConnell would sign off on exactly. And that's why 2016 becomes incredibly important. You know, the beginning he tries to really stay out of it. I think he favored Marco Rubio in the Republican primary, but he's looking at how he can hold onto the Senate and finally become majority leader under a Republican president. But then I early in the in the cycle Donald Trump from the scene. I am a fishery running. The president of the United States, and we are going to make our country. Great again. Donald Trump is winning some of these early primaries and his established himself as something more than a side showed this election. Eight PM in New Hampshire. Polls are now officially closed across the state and Fox News can now project that Donald Trump will win the Republican presidential primary, and it's against that backdrop. That's glee dies McConnell has to make his decision about what he's going to do. The presidential candidates turned their focus on discussing the supreme court on the campaign trail candidates on both sides have reframed the presidential election as a referendum on the high court's future. And the David Scalia dies that evening presidential debate. And there's half a dozen Republican candidates still competing for the presidential on. Get started candidates here the rules and at that debate. There's a question I the death of Justice Scalia and the vacancy that leaves on the supreme court the question of what to do with this comes up and only one candidate gives the sort of weirdly specific answer about who. He would appoint supreme court. We could have Diane Sykes. Or you could have a Bill Pryor. We have some fantastic people Donald Trump who names judges who are very popular among conservative legal active. I think it's up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It's called delay delay delay. This is sort of the moment where a lot of conservative think that maybe this is a guy that we can work with. Maybe there's a partnership to be had here with Donald Trump. So it sounds like because of his vacancy almost prim court that McConnell orchestrated Africa Leah's death. Trump now has an opportunity to give something very valuable to conservatives that they want and that they covered which is the judges that they want supreme court and lower down courts. And that that would become a huge factor in convincing those conservatives that Trump was there. I think that's right. This is a really crucial point in Trump's sort of convincing a lot of the people that matter on the right that he's going to be a conventional Republican president in ways that matter to them. I wonder how McConnell feels about the fact that this decision that was designed to help the Republican agenda. Broadly, ends up helping Donald Trump during the campaign someone who's not all that mainstream Republican. Yeah. Well, he was not an early adopter of Trump. He was not clearly enthusiastic fan of Trump. And he endorsed him sort of obligatory. Orally when he got to the point where he really had to. But once Trump the nominee, he became very much invested in this candidate with whom he had very little in common because this candidate was going to be the vessel by which this judicial appointment project that he'd been setting the stage for was going to be realized he didn't think Trump was going to win. The judges thing was sort of a long play that he was running. And the case the Trump did win a made him invested in Trump's victory, and that he wouldn't have been otherwise, but he was mostly concerned with minimizing drama that would blow back on his Senate candidates at that point. And you saw that with the access Hollywood tape. Breaking news this afternoon in the presidential race, the Washington Post released video from two thousand five where Donald Trump is boasting to Billy Bush access Hollywood. And he's speaking in very Lou terms about kissing groping Paul Ryan came out with a relatively forceful statement condemning the tape Paul Ryan saying he's sickened by what Donald Trump said on that access Hollywood video. And so now Paul Ryan Ryan's previous will not be join. Donald Trump at an event in Wisconsin tomorrow because Donald Trump is no longer invited. Did not make that decision that there and thought about what this really meant. And he called the strategist of his who has spoke with who said that McConnell asked him. You know, what have you seen in the polls in strategists said nothing yet and Connell decided to call some vulnerable. Republican Senate candidates who are in closely contested races. One of them was ROY blunt who I spoke with the Missouri Republican who said McConnell, call them and basically asked him if he was seeing a lot of blowback the access Hollywood tape among rally-goers at his campaign events, and once basically, not really the crowds were as big and pro-trump is it everybody, and so McConnell had a few conversations like this in the end, he decided to play out his own statement, denouncing what trumpet said, but also really leaving it up to all the Republican Senate candidates to sort of figure out what they wanted to do about this. So he focus groups and poll tests and anecdote gathers his way through what everyone else is having extreme. Only visceral response to he's thinking about strategizing for the party. When everybody else is genuinely shocked that the president is talking about grabbing women assaulting salting women yen. I think this is very McConnell. He saw this is a centrally political question, whatever he may have thought about Trump, and whatever he thought about Trump's statements where his mind went very quickly was what were the various scenarios stemming out from this incident. And which of the scenarios would be the most politically damaging for the Republicans in the Senate, and that feels really telling about the kind of core moral, compass and motivations of Mitch McConnell. I think it is. I think in the way that he discusses this in the way this came up when we talked about any number of these sort of moments that he'd been at where he was moral real moral crossroads that he prides himself on being an extremely practical politician his view of the Senate, and this of spreads out into his view of politics. I think is that really the worst thing that you. Can do commit futile gestures? You know, setup of mission that can't cost would be accomplished genital in the world. Point. But not I'm into business of trying to choose much as I can for our team. Right of center, which means getting outcome. Not just calling attention or so, but try to actually get out, and it's sort of the way that he talks whenever you bring up whether it's access Hollywood. Choose not to engage in don't think it's much too. Whether it's Russian election meddling. I don't have to say about that whole bus to go. Whether it's action on the part of the Senate to protect the Mueller investigation. I don't have time for that kind of feudal, Justin. But typically when there's no threat the place that McConnell goes to is basically, it's not my job. And in the cases, where he feels like they're really are lines being crossed sort of his mode is too often make pretty concise statement of denunciation and then move on very quickly. I think is blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it. And you don't have any doubt about it. Either. Charlottesville was a great example of that. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides McConnell, put that a very forceful statement today. Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement saying we can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred. There are no good Neo Nazis stopped short statement of naming Trump himself. I asked him about that you didn't need him. In the statement. What was your thinking? Not name. The way I express myself. That's all. And what does that mean? I don't know if it means anything, I think he's sort of marking off the limits of what he feels like his job, really. And as we were talking about it. He kind of pivots to talking about the Republican party's standing with black voters more, generally, if you're talking about the kind of the electoral. We already do without American voters. You know, it's been a real weak spot for the party for quite a long time. But this isn't really a new thing which to me was an interesting turn because it sort of the lens that he I think instinctively or conveniently sees so much of this through the lens of politics. And he does not seem to want gravel with them. It's fascinating that his mind goes so directly to the electoral consequences of any kind of statement on something as consequential Charlottesville rather than a chance to assert moral authority for the greater good of the country. Exactly. Yeah. Somebody who's not an elected Republican official looks at some of the things that have been unleashed in. The Trump base says that he doesn't sixteen election is a real concern in terms of the broader social fabric of the United States. And really looks at alarm at the fact that this is sort of tolerated to some degree by one of the major political parties, right because what Mitch McConnell clearly views futile gestures are what lots of other people would call moral leadership. But he clearly doesn't from your telling from what he said you see that as his role as majority leader. The senate. I think that's right. I think he sees certain bright lines that he needs to police beyond that. I think he is really of the view that the best thing for him to do is keep his head down. And just kind of keep running the program. There's a history of politicians who are essentially fancy themselves as pragmatists making these deals these sort of devil's bargains to get their agenda passed and I asked him about one of the more extreme comparisons. That had been made to him by a holocaust historian who had compared him to Paul. Von hindenburg. The president of the Weimar Republic and Germany who brought Hitler to power unwittingly as translator as the sort of bulwark to shore up his conservative coalition government. And I'm just what you what you make. To expect Republican elected officials not to try to achieve as much as they possibly can that they've always been four out of pique over presidential behavior is not he got so critics like that expect us all to just join them in a huff. And do often. Really? That was his response to you asking whether he was someone akin to alarm our Republic later who ushered in the area of Hillary. Exactly. I mean, that's that's kind of a stunning response. It was a sunny response. I thought because it really kind of confirmed the criticism of him in a way that the criticism that can be leveled against these politicians who fancy themselves the grownups in the room is that they are myopic, and they don't see the sort of bigger picture consequences of the shorter term bargains that they're striking and he was essentially copping to having struck one of those bargains. I mean, he was saying that of course, we're not standing on principle against Trump. Look at all the stuff that we need to get done. I mean, he sees his agendas something crucial to the country to pursue. And he's willing to put up with a lot to do that. And he's sort of included Trump's behavior in this fear of thing that he's willing to put up with the thing. Now, he's in a position where his party is the party of Trump right now, you're talking about somebody who got into the Republican party at a time when it was helping pass the Civil Rights Act. And he's now finally ended to this position of real thority in the party at a time. When you have it's president out there, you know, defending people at a white supremacist rally. But I think if people are waiting for Mitch McConnell's take a real stand against Trump. It's going to be a very long, wait. You know, the end of the day. He is really a party guy. Is this the Republican party that he wanted to have at this point in his career? I don't think it probably is. But it's still his party, and he's going to stand with it. And he's going to do it. He has to do to see it through this presidency. Mcconnell's ultimate goal is to implement this Republican agenda for this party. He loves above all other things has he been effective at that. I think he's been extremely affected. So we now have a new US supreme court Justice. Neal gorsuch. He's forty nine years old. He's very likely to be on the supreme court for several decades to supreme court justices Democrats view this as a heist of the century that President Obama was denied the opportunity to nominate a judge for nearly a year one of which they would not have had with that McConnell, heist of the century. Wow. The nomination of bread 'em cavenaugh of Maryland to be an associate Justice of the supreme court of the United States is confirmed. Another day another judicial nominee getting Senate approval. They have all these other judicial appointments as will be the eleventh and twelve court of appeals nominees that we will have confirmed this year a modern day record winner as Mitch McConnell last night. He got Senate Democrats to capitulate and give him fifteen more judges his now put two supreme court justices and eighty four federal circuit and district court judges the most in history, total of eighty five federal judges have already been appointed since the president's taking office and twenty nineteen is expected to bring even more sweeping tax Bill passed nearly one and a half trillion dollar Bill is viewed as a major victory for President Trump and is the largest tax overhaul in more than three decades. This has been a very good two years for the Republican party is she's been the most to yours. Third years. I've been here. But the question from Connell is really at what cost? Charlie. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. We'll be right back. 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