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Obama And McConnell: Debt Ceiling Gives GOP's Great Dismantler His Moment

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MCCONNELL
AP

WASHINGTON -- If you haven't noticed, this is Mitch McConnell's moment. And if you haven't realized it, this won't be the last. In fact, there will be many more, especially if -- as is quite possible -- he becomes Republican majority leader of the Senate after next year's elections.

In what amounted to a victory speech as the final vote approached on the debt ceiling he brokered, the senior senator from Kentucky reached what has been a career-long goal: to be this century's Henry Clay.

Only instead of being Kentucky's "Great Compromiser," McConnell is and wants to be the Bluegrass's "Great Dismantler."

A handsome portrait of Clay hangs in McConnell's spacious Capitol suite. But the two men represent diametrically opposing traditions. Sen. Clay wanted to be president, and used his eloquence and shrewdness in the service of constructing and protecting the power of the federal government. He championed the "American System" of national roads and public works, and spent decades trying to keep the Union from flying apart under the centrifugal stress of slavery, economics and ideology. He inspired another Kentucky-born politician named Abe Lincoln, and infuriated yet another named Jefferson Davis.

McConnell, equally as shrewd if not as eloquent, has a fundamentally different view. He sees his job, as he said on the floor as the vote began, to "rein in Washington" and "slow down the Big Government freight train." He measures success in terms of how much he can reduce the power, purse and reach of a federal government he has been a part of since he was elected at the height of the Reagan Era in 1984.

McConnell is a past master of channelling middle-class resentment at the power of government to gain power for himself in government. And he is one of the most patient and canny legislators and negotiators in modern politics: always superbly prepared, never given to rash actions or statements and a potent mix of brains and chip-on-the shoulder disdain for people with fancier pedigrees but fuzzier minds.

With the debt ceiling negotiations, he basically took the president to the cleaners. He used the energy of the Tea Party as a threat, and the weakness and division in the House GOP leadership to make himself the indispensable player in the final days. He proposed a fail-safe route to avoid default that played to the president's vanity (the idea of giving the president the power to decide debt-ceiling raises on his own) and then used the sense of trust to drive a hard bargain that took takes off the table. McConnnell also used his 26-year relationship with Vice President Joe Biden to smooth the pathway to a deal. As Rep. Charlie Rangel said, the GOP "mugged the president but let him keep his wedding ring."

The president thinks that the "super committee" that now will be appointed will be able to -- and will -- recommend revenue increases and even tax cuts when it has to report Nov. 23. There may indeed be some loophole closings, but don't count on it.

Was the president listening today when McConnell discussed the "super committee" group of 12, which will include six Republicans and six Democrats? McConnell called it the "cost-cutting committee."

Game on.

McConnell's whole career has been about skillfully tapping anti-government resentment and turning it into deals and power. That is how he began his rise in Louisville and Kentucky.

In 1974, Louisville -- a border city on the Ohio River in the Border State of Kentucky -- was sullen and divided in a way it had not been since the Union Army occupied it during the Civil War. The issues in many ways were the same: race and the power of the federal government. In the summer of 1974, a federal judge had ordered the widespread use of busing to integrate -- in fact not just in law -- the public schools in Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County. Well over 100,000 students were involved, but so were decades of de facto segregation.

In the working class neighborhoods of the city and its suburbs, anger at the order -- even occasional street protests -- was widespread. McConnell, originally born in Alabama, hailed from one of those neighborhoods. He wasn't a protestor or anti-busing leader by any means. He had worked for moderate GOP Sens. John Sherman Cooper and Marlow Cook, and had been an attorney in the Ford administration.

But he knew the neighborhood folks, as well as their fears and resentments. When he ran successfully for County Judge (the chief administrative job) in 1978, he ran strongly in places where he could make the case that government had too much say in local lives, and that services needed to be decided by families and neighbors, not by distant powers downtown or inside the Beltway.

That was the Reaganesque message he took statewide when he ran for Senate and won with the Gipper atop the ticket in 1984.

It is a straight line from there to the floor today.

And we may not have seen anything yet. As patient as he is remorseless, as deeply political as he is lawyerly, McConnell built a machine in Kentucky. It is crumbling now -- the incumbent Democratic governor is up by 25 points in new polls, and Sen. Rand Paul of the Tea Party is hardly a faithful ally -- but Mitch is moving on to do the same thing in the Senate that he did in the state years ago.

Meticulous, tactically focused, he runs a tight ship in the Senate and keeps a very close eye on the GOP's Senate election process. Here's the key statistic for 2012: of the 11 seats considered to be in play by handicapper Charlie Cook, nine are held by Democrats. The Democrats currently hold a 51-47 majority, with two others caucusing with them. Do the math. The GOP is within reach.

The Great Dismantler is on the march.

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