by Susan Page, USA TODAY –
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assesses the impact having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket will have on Republican Senate candidates in November and what dealing with a President Trump would be like.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who learned an early lesson about the value of patience and persistence during a childhood bout with polio, has some advice for Republicans alarmed about the prospect of having presidential candidate Donald Trump at the top of the ticket and in the White House.
“Some people have said our nominee is too controversial and that will cause you problems,” McConnell acknowledged in an interview about his memoir, The Long Game, being published Tuesday by Sentinel. “But by the way, the Democratic nominee is pretty controversial, too. The negatives on both these candidates at the moment are stunningly high.” By Election Day, he says dryly, “It’ll be interesting to see whose negatives are the highest.”
Just two years ago, at age 72, McConnell reached the goal of a lifetime — Senate majority leader — when Republicans regained control and with it more power to frustrate President Obama’s ambitions and set a political agenda of their own. While non-partisan analysts say Democrats have an easier path to win the Senate in November, McConnell says there is a 50-50 chance the GOP can maintain its majority despite an uphill political landscape and unpredictable presidential nominee.
He’s urging GOP candidates worried that Trump’s provocative views will hurt their prospects to run campaigns focused on their individual accomplishments for their particular states. He tells them they should feel free to point out issues on which they disagree with Trump, as he has done on a proposed temporary ban on Muslim immigrants (he’s against it) and the release of a presidential candidate’s tax returns (he says it’s become expected).
Even so, McConnell matter-of-factly endorsed Trump when it was clear the real-estate mogul would win the nomination, a stark contrast to the continuing deliberations by House Speaker Paul Ryan. McConnell sees no political percentage in Republicans trying to disassociate themselves from the presumptive nominee by saying they won’t vote for him.
“I think that would be a mistake,” McConnell says, “because, obviously, you would like the people who are voting for your candidate for president to vote for you.” He reassures Republicans nervous about whether their nominee’s ideology and temperament that a President Trump “would be fine.”
And even as the presidential nominee, Trump won’t redefine the Republican Party, McConnell says. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Trump predicted he would transform the GOP into a “worker’s party” over the next five to 10 years.
“My view is that Trump will not change the Republican Party,” McConnell says, describing it as “America’s right-of-center party.” “If he brings in new followers, that’s great, and well worth the effort, but he will not change the Republican Party.”
McConnell isn’t a man given to panic. Indeed, he is so practiced at looking impassive that his facial expressions only occasionally betray emotion. He delivers slashing criticism of Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid without raising his voice or speeding his cadence. He embraces the tactical advantages of being boring, especially when reporters are probing for conflict. In his memoir, he recalls when a staffer told then-president George W. Bush that the Kentucky senator was particularly excited about winning a vote.
“Really?” Bush replied. “How can you tell?”
In short, McConnell is the opposite of a gregarious pol in the mold of Teddy Kennedy, beloved by voters and colleagues, or of figures such as Trump or Democrat Bernie Sanders who draw huge crowds to exuberant rallies.
Yet McConnell has managed to become the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history and a leader who has forged a disparate Republican caucus into a nearly united force on battles from opposing the Affordable Care Act to blocking the Supreme Court confirmation of Merrick Garland. He has been the scourge of both Tea Party-inspired conservatives and the Obama White House.
In short, he has been a master of the long game.
“My first memory in life was my last visit to Warm Springs,” McConnell says.
Just 4 years old, McConnell and his mother had spent the previous two years traveling the 60 miles from Five Points, Ala., to Warm Springs, the small Georgia town that drew polio victims for treatment. President Franklin Roosevelt had been a frequent visitor, seeking relief in the mineral springs from his own battle with the disease. Once, his mother told him, she held the toddler up so he could glimpse the president as he drove by.
The news for McConnell in 1946 was life-changing. “Nurses told my mother that I was going to be OK,” he recalls. “They thought I could walk without a limp and without a brace. And we stopped in a shoe store on the way home and bought a pair of low-top saddle Oxford shoes, which was sort of a symbol that I was going to be a normal little boy.”
The disease had only a limited lasting impact on him physically, on his left quadriceps. His left thigh is narrower than his right, and damage to the muscle makes it difficult for him to walk down stairs.
The impact on his persona may have been greater. He marvels at his mother’s perseverance in following doctors’ orders that her son, 2 years old when he contracted polio, perform painful stretching exercises and avoid walking altogether until they said the time was right.
“Can you imagine keeping a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old off their feet?” he says. “She did it for two years, like a drill sergeant. And that tenacity, that lesson (is) that if you just keep working on something and (are) not defeated by the inevitable speed bumps that we all hit in life, that you can probably get where you’re headed.”
Patience, persistence and a willingness to accept small steps toward a larger goal are traits that apply to his chosen career, he says. “The Senate rewards that sort of thing,” he says. “The Senate is not the sort of place where instant gratification, I should say, is very likely.”
That attitude has put him at odds with the Senate Conservatives Fund and other Tea Party-inspired groups that have targeted some Republican senators as insufficiently conservative in favor of more combative challengers. McConnell blasts former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, who founded the group, as a hypocrite who would be “almost submissive” in meetings with his colleagues only to emerge to bash them to reporters.
“It’s important to remember the basic principle that winners make policy and losers go home,” McConnell says, saying he prefers to work “in the field of the achievable.” He blames the nomination of “unelectable” conservatives for costing Republicans three Senate seats in 2010 — in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada — and two more in 2012, in Indiana and Missouri.
In 2014, McConnell himself became a target, challenged for re-nomination by conservative businessman Matt Bevin, now Kentucky’s governor. In his memoir, McConnell reveals for the first time that he seriously considered not running for a sixth term for fear that his “dismal” approval ratings would mean Democrats could gain the seat. He attributes his decision to run to a childhood lesson when his father forced him to confront a neighborhood bully with the Dickensian name of Dicky McGrew.
“I beat him up and I bent his glasses and we never had another problem,” McConnell recalls. “During this period, when I was wondering the best way to react to being hit from the right as being an Obama enabler and obviously being a target on the left … I just remembered that I beat Dicky up and I can beat these guys.”
McConnell dispatched Bevin in the primary and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election. Republicans overall gained nine Senate seats and with it the control they had lost eight years earlier, making McConnell majority leader. At last.
McConnell is sitting in the archives of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, his alma mater. He and his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, live in a modest brick duplex in the Highlands neighborhood just a 10-minute drive away. On display at the center is the “I Like Ike” button McConnell wore on his shirt collar for his fifth-grade photo and memorabilia from campaigns starting with the student-council elections at duPont Manual High School — where he won the presidency in an upset, by the way.
His 278-page memoir offers a glimpse into McConnell’s personal story and settles some scores.
His portrait of Obama is scathing, at one point sarcastically referring to him as “Professor” Obama. He argues that the president’s arrogance and refusal to negotiate cost him compromises that might have been achievable with Republicans during the final two years of his tenure, including on overhauling the tax code and addressing the long-term sustainability of entitlement programs.
“Look, the president is a very smart guy,” McConnell says. “I know he knows what he’s talking about and I know he knows what he thinks. What I would prefer not to listen to is for him to characterize my views to me in my presence, because I know what I think.” In private meetings, he writes, Obama often launches into “a theatrically earnest re-litigation of what you’ve missed about his brilliance.”
McConnell also questions Obama’s decision to visit Hiroshima Friday during his Asian tour.
“It looked a little bit like an apology, and believe me there’s nothing to apologize for,” McConnell says. His father, just back from fighting in Europe during World War II, had received orders to deploy to the Pacific when President Truman ordered atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompting the Japanese to surrender. “I can tell you that the decision to drop the bomb was really popular in our house and all across America.”
(For his part, Obama seems no more favorably inclined toward McConnell. At the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2013, the president joked, “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really?,” he said to laughter. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”)
In his memoir, McConnell also depicts Reid, his Democratic counterpart, as “a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality” who can be thoughtful in person but turns “bombastic and unreasonable” in front of a microphone.
Surprisingly, another senator with whom McConnell often has tangled doesn’t appear in the book: Ted Cruz of Texas. The conservative Republican and presidential hopeful has been a burr in McConnell’s side, once calling him a liar on the Senate floor.
“The Washington Post gave him three Pinocchios for calling me a liar,” McConnell says, noting the judgment of the newspaper’s fact-checking column. He says Cruz isn’t mentioned in his memoir because he’s “not a significant part of my story.”
Does that mean Cruz isn’t a significant part of the Senate? “I would say he has maybe one follower on a good day.”
McConnell has some advice for Trump when it comes to choosing a running mate, urging him to pick “somebody who is extremely knowledgeable about both Congress and sort of the way things work.” But he says he has no problem envisioning working with Trump in the White House.
“Our nominee brags about, I think correctly, as somebody who’s transactional, somebody who, as he puts it, makes deals. Well, that’s what you have to do in order to function legislatively, so I’m not worried about it at all. I think he’d be fine,” he says, dismissing concerns by some Republicans about his ideology and persona. He notes that the framework of the Constitution “constrains all of us, members of Congress and the president as well.”
“I want to win the election, and I have to say Donald Trump has done a good job so far of winning elections,” McConnell says. “I hope he can win one more.”