09/16/2014 03:30 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

5 Ways Mitch McConnell Explains Our Bleak World


Mitch McConnell does not exactly fire the imagination. The Republican leader in the Senate is so much a cardboard cutout of a Beltway suit that his blandness inspired a popular Internet meme earlier this year. But what if McConnell's inscrutability is precisely why we should take a closer look at him? As powerful as he is -- he very well may be on the verge of becoming the Senate Majority Leader -- he has gotten oddly little attention over the years, in large part because he offers little superficial appeal for the color-seeking journalist. This is a grave error. After researching and writing a new e-book on McConnell's career, The Cynic, I've come to believe that he holds the key to understanding how our politics and government have come to such a low point. If you want to come to grips with the demoralizing, dysfunctional state of affairs in Washington, you must peer into that blank visage to see the five dark truths that lurk within.

1. There is no position that cannot be reversed or abandoned.

McConnell was once so moderate he was almost liberal. He fired off a praiseworthy letter to a leader of the organization for moderate Republicans after reading a pro-moderation essay the man had written in Playboy. He got the endorsement of the AFL-CIO in Louisville after going bowling with the local union chief and promising to support collective bargaining for public employees. And as head of Kentucky's largest county, he quietly snuffed out one anti-abortion bill after another.

All that changed when McConnell was elected to the Senate in 1984. Ronald Reagan had won by a vastly bigger margin in Kentucky than McConnell had, and McConnell resolved to follow the conservative tide. He swung to the right on a host of issues, including abortion. When a Louisville abortion-rights advocate ran into him years later, she thanked him for his help on the issue when he led the county government. "You know, I don't really want anyone to know that," he said.

2. Go as negative as you must to win. Most people will forget.

McConnell's toughest race for reelection was his first one, in 1990. He was running against Harvey Sloane, a physician who had volunteered as a surgeon in impoverished Eastern Kentucky towns and set up a clinic on Louisville's African-American West End. He and McConnell had served alongside each other in local government, on cordial terms. The race was tightening. But late in October, McConnell's campaign leaked to the press that Sloane had renewed a prescription for sleeping pills using his expired physician-registration number. McConnell's campaign, with Roger Ailes' assistance, ran foreboding ads with images of pills and vials. Sloane knew the race was over. "Nothing surprised me about Mitch," he says. "He's a guy without a lot of qualms in terms of how he conducts himself in campaigns." McConnell won by four percentage points and told a confidante that he "considered his campaign as the best run in America that year."

In 2004, McConnell's fellow Kentucky Republican, Senator Jim Bunning, was in a tight race of his own. In the final days of the race, two GOP state senators made strong insinuations regarding the sexual orientation of Bunning's opponent, a state senator (and also physician) named Daniel Mongiardo. By McConnell's own admission, he urged Bunning against disowning the comments, which came in the midst of the GOP's nationwide attacks on the Democrats over gay marriage. Bunning won. Mongiardo is now married to a woman, with two children. "It worked, so as far as politics goes, you have to hand it to them," he says.

3. Side with the big guy against the little guy. He has more money.

One morning in October 2000 in Martin County in eastern Kentucky, the thin earthen wall holding back a huge pond of coal slurry, the thick goop left over from purifying coal, collapsed, and sent 300 million gallons of the black sludge--30 times the volume of the Exxon Valdez spill--oozing into streams leading to the towns below. Miraculously, no one was killed, but the spill and cleanup devastated the landscape--stream embankments lost their trees, erosion has eaten away at townspeople's properties, and much of the toxic goop remains, just below ground.

Federal mining regulators launched a big investigation, with prospects for major fines. But after George W. Bush took office and named McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, to be secretary of labor, the investigation was scaled way back and a mining inspector who protested was forced out of his job. The mining company, owned by giant Massey Energy, wound up with a mere $5,600 fine from Chao's department, which was staffed heavily with former McConnell aides. And in 2002, as the investigation was still proceeding, Massey made its first big gift, $100,000, to the Senate Republicans' campaign committee. "This was one of the most outrageous things I've seen," says the former inspector, Jack Spadaro.

McConnell was back in Martin County last month -- not to check on the recovery from the slurry spill, but to pose with miners and attack his opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, for being part of President Obama's "war on coal."

4. Don't worry about protecting the power of big money. The issue bores people.

Back when McConnell was a moderate Republican, he was a vocal advocate for tighter limits on political giving and spending, and even favored public financing for campaigns, warning of the "questionable, or downright illicit, practices that may accompany the current electoral process." But as he saw how crucial outspending his opponent was for winning his own campaigns, and how much of a financial edge his party held in the status quo, he turned against stricter limits.

This would seem like a risky political move. But McConnell hit upon a clever approach. In opposing the reformers' proposal of the moment, he often claimed support for some other reform measure that wasn't up for debate at the time. When reformers later embraced that measure, he would turn against it, too, as he did most recently in coming out against disclosure for big "dark money" outside groups. He didn't worry about voters catching on since, as he once said, campaign finance "ranks right up there with static cling as one of the great concerns of the American people."

And if the corporations themselves turned against the campaign finance status quo, as they threatened to do in the late 1990s, McConnell simply reminded them of his ability to help or hurt them in Washington. When BellSouth stopped funding one campaign finance reform initiative, its executive explained, "Senator McConnell is a very important senator to this company."

5. If you gum up the works in Washington, the other guys will take the blame.

In early 2009, McConnell was faced with a highly popular new Democratic president taking office in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades. His chosen approach for this moment was to look for the earliest opportunity to kneecap the president. As McConnell's ally in the Senate, Utah's Bob Bennett recalls, McConnell was gleeful when he found the weak spot: "I've found the issue where he's going to lose: Guantanamo. We're going to oppose the closing of Guantanamo....We can talk about taking terrorists and putting them on American soil and terrorists causing prison riots and things of that kind."

But McConnell's strategy centered above all on maintaining total opposition to Obama's health care legislation, instead of extending some Republican votes in exchange for policy concessions. McConnell dragged out the debate over the bill until the public had soured on the whole partisan morass. Bennett recalls: "He said, 'Our strategy is to delay this sucker as long as we possibly can, and the longer we delay it the worse the president looks: why can't he get it done?'"

McConnell's strategy was a winner on two levels. It helped him stay in relatively good standing with the Tea Party insurgency, by making it look like he was holding the line against Obama. (So what if it also fired up the insurgency even more, by forcing the Democrats to push through legislation on party-line votes.) And, in McConnell's key insight, his obstructionism hurt Obama and the Democrats more than it did Republicans--after all, if government wasn't working, that surely was the fault of the party in power and the party that was pro-government. And hadn't Obama premised his whole campaign on the notion that, with his help, Washington could transcend differences? Clearly, he was failing.

Yes, this strategy meant bringing Washington to a virtual standstill, and further embittering Americans toward their government. But it was a winner. McConnell's party swept the 2010 midterms, thereby effectively shutting down Obama's legislative agenda for the final six years of his presidency. And McConnell is narrowly leading in the polls to win his sixth term in the Senate. In the age of the permanent campaign, of politics as sport, that's what matters. Just win, baby.