Mitch McConnell interview
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has often been caught in the political crossfire. Liberals have portrayed him as the Darth Vader of the Senate, out to destroy their agenda, devious and intractable. Rock-ribbed conservatives complain that he's been too "squishy." Some groused that he didn't keep the Senate in Washington through the Christmas vacation to argue (and ultimately lose) the cloture vote on ObamaCare. Others were mortified that he backed a more conventional Republican candidate over Rand Paul in the Kentucky Senate primary. But McConnell may have outfoxed them all. Next month, the GOP conference in the Senate will expand to 47, and McConnell told me yesterday in his Capitol Hill office that the timing is "perfect to do entitlement reform," a longtime objective of his.
McConnell says the debt commission was important, not because of today's vote or because of all the particulars of the plan, but because of the tone it set. He explains: "I'm pleased they chose to underscore the dimensions of the problem by making such controversial and far-reaching proposals." He is cautious about specifying which aspects of the plan, or of the Ryan-Rivlin entitlement proposal, he would support, saying only: "I hope at least something comes of it."
Although his wily use of Senate procedure and staunch opposition to tax hikes and other parts of the Obama agenda have made him the bogeyman of the left, McConnell sounds like a man ready to deal. His reasoning is grounded in history and in simple politics. He recalls that when George W. Bush was in the White House, he "couldn't find a single Democrat" willing to sign on to Social Security reform. When one party controls all of government, the temptation is too great for the minority party to sit back and take potshots. However, divided government, McConnell argues, "is the perfect time to do difficult things." He envisions that the Republican House will be sending over a lot of bills attractive to Senate Republicans. "Maybe we can do some of them. Maybe the president will sign some of them."
The key, he is eager to point out, is that 23 Democratic Senate seats are up for re-election in 2012. He observes: "The currency of the realm in this town is the president's job approval. If that is below 50 percent, his party tends to fracture." He smiles: "Rumors tell us that is what is going on today." And he notes that the Democrats convened five long meeting to "argue among themselves." The Democrats running for reelection, he surmises, "may be interested in responding to what the voters were telling us in the election." He likes the phrase "restraining order" to describe what 2010 voters were hoping to accomplish, namely to halt the president and Congressional Democrats' liberal agenda.
Is Obama going to move to the center? McConnell says if a sober advisor were to visit the president, he'd tell Obama that his approval is low, he has "horrible credentials on spending and debt" and "maybe now is the time to do a Clintonian back-flip" to avoid being a one-termer.
So far, McConnell's post-election strategy seems to be working. He enlisted all of his 41 Republican Senate colleagues to sign a letter demanding the Senate deal with taxes and funding the government before getting to the START treaty or other matters. "Life is a series of choices," he says. And indeed, the president and congressional negotiators seem to be closing in on a tax deal while the vote on START waits in the queue.
On other foreign policy issues, McConnell agrees with those who think strong measures are needed to disrupt the Iranian regime's nuclear program: "What I am saying is that we should be squeezing these guys like a lemon." He says he senses, as the WikiLeaks documents suggested, that Arab leaders are deeply worried and believe "only we have the swat" to deal with the threat.
As for Afghanistan, he stands squarely with the Obama administration. "Most, if not all, of my conference believes in what the president is doing," he says. "Gen. Petraeus is the single best person to get the job done." McConnell is pleased that the president is extending the deadline for significant troop withdrawal until 2014. He says the Taliban's perspective is that the U.S. "has the watches and they have the time," meaning they will wait us out if we set a premature end date for our military commitment.
McConnell is clearly pleased about the degree of continuity with the Bush policies on Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism. He notes that closing Guantanamo and a public trial for Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should "go into the category of lessons learned." "It is one thing to satisfy the ACLU in the middle of a campaign," he observes. But it is another to protect the American people as commander in chief. McConnell prefers to try terrorists at Guantanamo. "We have a $200-million courtroom. I've never seen a $200-million courtroom," he deadpans. He says, to him, it is "largely irrelevant" that "they don't like Guantanamo in Europe." He smiles as he notes that the Obama administration on the war on terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan "is edging right into where the previous administration was."
The reality of the 2012 presidential campaign schedule suggests that candidates will jump into the race sometime early next year. But McConnell doesn't buy the idea that this means business can't be done. "We've had regularly scheduled presidential elections every year since 1788, and there is no reason why we can't do business." He contends that "if the president pivots to the center, as I think he will, there is no reason we can't continue to do business in 2011 and 2012."
McConnell doesn't seem concerned that Obama, like President Clinton, will reposition himself enough to improve his reelection prospects. "This administration," he says, "has established a reputation for being far left." He adds that there will be plenty to argue about, especially ObamaCare, which he believes will be a "never-ending issue."
McConnell has a well-earned reputation for legislative prowess and for holding a scant conference (which shrank to 39) together. He seems buoyed by the prospect of increased troops on the Republican side, potential allies on the Democratic side and a president whom he believes has no choice but to come back to the center and the Senate, if he wants to avoid becoming a one-term, failed president.
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