Gwen’s Take | Mitch McConnell: Reading Between the Lines

Posted: Thu, 10/31/2013 - 2:32pm

Gwen Ifill interviewed Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday for the PBS Newshour [Photo: PBS Newshour]

America, apparently, hates everything it knows about Washington. Democrats detest Republicans. Republicans deride Democrats. Everyone else dismisses the whole thing.

Meanwhile, beneath the archways and marble hallways of the nation’s Capitol building, government chugs along in its own political vacuum, often oblivious to the churnings outside its ornate doors.

This was the scene that greeted us as we arrived to interview Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in a room named after Strom Thurmond. (See my photo with PBS NewsHour producer Linda Scott below. Feel free to write your own caption.)

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On the day we met, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was being pilloried in a House committee. In the Capitol rotunda, leaders were gathering to unveil a bust of Winston Churchill. Outside, a man strummed a guitar on a bench in front of the Capitol, singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He wore a brown box on his head.

Inside, McConnell was sublimely unperturbed by the chaos that has driven Congress to record lows in the public’s estimation. 

McConnell has been laboring to manage the warring expectations of his party’s caucus while preparing for a Kentucky reelection challenge next year.

“Well, I just do my job,” he said when I asked him what it felt like to have a political bullseye on his back. “I’ve got an opponent in the primary (Republican investment executive Matt Bevin) who thinks compromise and negotiation are dirty words. And a general election opponent (Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes) who’s arguing that I’m obstructionist. I mean, they’re obviously both wrong.”

L-R: Alison Lundergan Grimes, Mitch McConnell, Matt Bevin
[Photos: CNN & Bevin Campaign].

McConnell’s been counted out before, so perhaps he has reason to be calm in the face of a challenge. But he’s also watched colleagues like Utah’s Bob Bennett collapse in the face of a Tea Party challenge, and upstarts like Kentucky seatmate Rand Paul knock off mainstream choices.

So if you’re McConnell, the task is to be everything to everybody. As a Senate insider, he intervened to shut down the government shutdown, said he pitied Kathleen Sebelius for being the target of the week’s health care ire, and declared that he can partner with President Obama.

As a Tea Party sympathizer, he is confident he can not be beaten on the right and emphasizes that he hates Obamacare as much as any of them. Intraparty disputes? Mere distractions, he says.

The balance he strikes was on display throughout the interview.

“We had a big debate about tactics,” he said of the shutdown. “And I thought linking opposition to Obamacare to shutting down the government, something people hate even more than Obamacare, was not a smart strategy, and I said so. I’m still saying so. That’s a bad strategy. But on the substance, on the merits, I think there is very little difference of opinion among Republicans about the way we’d like to see this country go, the direction we’d like to take.”

In some respects, McConnell has a fatter tightrope to walk than President Obama does. When websites fail and foreign allies discover the U.S. is spying on them, there is only one question: what did the president know and when did he know it?

When a minority party leader watches his party implode over tactics, it is easier to stand by – as McConnell and others have done – and largely refrain from commenting.

Should Republicans use their continuing unhappiness about the Benghazi episode to block apparently qualified Obama nominees?

“It happens every day in the Senate,” McConnell told me with a tight smile.

Should the U.S. be spying on allies?

“Countries do spy on each other,” he said without blinking.

Can he win again in increasingly conservative Kentucky?

“I think people at home do like what I’ve done,” he said.

President Obama may prefer the executive mansion to the legislative maelstrom down the street. But nothing in politics beats being able to spread the blame and take the credit.