In 1964, an ambitious young student at the University of Louisville made an impassioned plea to his classmates, urging them to march in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr. At the time, Kentucky was no haven for race reformers—it was dominated by some of the same elements of the Democratic Party that vehemently rejected the very notion of civil rights. Nevertheless, this 20-year-old activist called for strong statutes, state and federal, to protect the dignity of minorities. “Property rights have always been, and will continue to be, an integral part of our heritage,” he wrote in the campus newspaper, “but this does not absolve the property holder of his obligation to help ensure the basic rights of all citizens.” The student’s name was Mitch McConnell.
Then, as now, McConnell was a dedicated Republican, but in his younger days, he was also a very high-minded one. As an up-and-coming activist, he declined to work on Barry Goldwater’s reactionary presidential campaign. Instead, his biographer, John David Dyche, told me, he advocated for the civil rights supporter Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. His role model was Kentucky Republican Senator John Sherman Cooper, an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war who helped defeat a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act. He admired Lyndon Johnson’s legislative mastery, Dyche said, and believed politics could serve a larger purpose.
Nearly 50 years later, very few people in Washington would accuse McConnell of idealism. As one veteran Kentucky journalist explained, Democrats regard the Senate minority leader as “the ultimate Machiavelli,” and with good cause. From the stimulus bill, to the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle (and its ultimate consequence, sequestration), to four years of stalled judicial nominations, McConnell’s relentless obstructionism has mired the president in low approval ratings. There is no one the administration blames more for its troubles. And yet, when you consider McConnell’s many small victories from another angle, they can start to look like defeats—not just for his own onetime dreams of statesmanship, but for the long-term future of the Republican Party.
McConnell is often described as driven—after overcoming polio at the age of five, he threw himself into competitive sports. Following six years in Jefferson County government, he ran for the Senate in 1984. His campaign unleashed ads depicting a pack of bloodhounds chasing his opponent, who was supposedly running from his record. By the end of one ad, the poor guy had sought refuge up a tree, dogs snarling savagely at his heels. It was a pretty good metaphor for the ruthlessness that would come to define McConnell’s Senate career.
At first, McConnell had broad ambitions. His office was once home to the desk of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. (He even passed a resolution stating that the desk would always belong to a Kentucky senator.) An avowed internationalist, he resisted Jesse Helms’s attempts to gut the foreign-aid budget. As chairman of the ethics committee, he undertook a dogged investigation of his fellow Republican, Bob Packwood, for charges of sexual harassment and assault.
But over the years, he became increasingly loyal to an increasingly right-wing party—and more and more obsessed with fund-raising. Kentucky’s press and establishment remained Democratic until 1994, and so, the veteran journalist said, money “was the only way to get his message out.” A longtime McConnell observer remarked that, even compared with other senators, McConnell “puts his election and tenure before everything else.” McConnell himself likes to say, “You have to be elected before you can be a statesman.” As his power in the caucus grew, his worldview shrank.
By the time Barack Obama became president, all McConnell seemingly cared about was winning. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he famously told National Journal. His strategy was to keep Senate Republicans together to prevent the administration from accomplishing anything at all. Washington would look hopelessly inefficient, and he could convince independent voters that the stasis was Obama’s fault. His strategy represented the complete triumph of short-term partisan thinking.
On the surface, at least, it worked: He maintained impressive control over his caucus. His former colleague Chuck Hagel has called him “the smartest political thinker we have in our conference.” In 2010, independents turned against Obama and gave Republicans control of the House.
But there was a downside, even if it took some time to reveal itself. On the biggest issue of the last four years—health care—McConnell also went all out in opposition. He bet everything that reform would fail, instead of huddling with anxious conservative Democrats to craft a compromise. The result was Obamacare, a historic achievement. A similar dynamic occurred with financial reform. Because of McConnell’s obstructionism, Obama didn’t have to make concessions to Republicans—meaning that the bill was more substantial (and liberal) than it would have been otherwise. And while McConnell’s procedural delays might have helped stall the president’s agenda, they also helped make the Republican brand the toxic commodity it is today. Even McConnell’s approval ratings in bright red Kentucky are dreadful.
Meanwhile, his own record has become almost tragically petty. The former internationalist is now the most fanatical Senate opponent of closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Someone who has known McConnell for years told me he doesn’t have a “racist bone in his body.” But when McConnell was asked whether he thought Obama was a Christian, all he would say was: “I take him at his word.” He admitted to The Washington Post with apparent pride that the country had indeed been held hostage by Republicans during the 2011 debt crisis. And when rumors surfaced that Ashley Judd was considering a 2014 challenge, he moved quickly to crush her, although her candidacy was hardly a threat. A leaked tape caught him observing, “This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign, ... when anybody sticks their head up, do them out.” This was another good metaphor—for how limited McConnell’s political ambitions have become.
McConnell once said admiringly of Henry Clay, “The compromises that he brought about probably pushed the Civil War off, first the one in 1820, then the one of 1850.” This is the definition of short-term thinking. Today, we don’t remember the Civil War being “pushed off”—we remember that, as Abraham Lincoln said, the war came. For his part, Obama will be remembered as a two-term president who won reelection in an ailing economy and who passed a law providing access to health care for all Americans. McConnell’s claim to the historic legacy he once yearned for might lie, ironically, in having made Obama’s possible.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @IChotiner.