Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks from the chamber as Republicans pushed legislation toward Senate approval to defund Planned Parenthood and the ACA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 3, 2015.
Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP

To win over voters, McConnell discovers his love of federal largess

Updated

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not exactly the nation’s most popular politician. After more than a third of a century representing Kentucky on Capitol Hill, the Republican lawmaker has one of the lowest approval ratings of any senator among his own constituents.

And with that in mind, as the Senate’s GOP leader gets ready to run for the seventh time, McConnell has focused on an important priority: bring home the bacon. The Hill reported this week on McConnell “delivering more than $1 billion worth of federal spending and tax breaks to his Kentucky constituents.”

[McConnell] flexed his political muscle to secure $914.2 million in direct spending for Kentucky in the two year-end omnibus spending bills. The windfall will likely boost his political standing at home in the face of a well-financed Democratic opponent and his perennially low approval ratings.

McConnell touted his spending and tax-relief accomplishments at a press conference in Louisville…. Noting that he’s the only top congressional leader who isn’t from California or New York, McConnell emphasized he was one of four people in the room making final decisions about specifics on the year-end spending and tax deals.

The Senate Republican argued at the press conference, “I saw a commercial from my likely opponent indicating that I was all that was wrong with Washington. So I have a question for her here as we go into the new year: In what way would Kentucky have been better off without any of these items that I put in the year-end spending bill?”

I don’t doubt that many voters in the Bluegrass State will find this persuasive. It’s not even especially offensive: members of Congress have worked on steering federal benefits to their constituents for as long as we’ve had members of Congress.

But it’s worth pausing to appreciate the line McConnell and his party have tried to take on the issue in recent years, and the degree to which that line is at odds with the Kentucky Republican’s latest boasts.

It may seem like ancient history, but after Barack Obama became president, McConnell and his GOP brethren insisted that federal spending was the root of all evil. Federal investments, Americans were told, were bad for the economy, undermined job creation, pushed the national debt to dangerous heights, and needed to be curtailed to rescue the republic from doom.

That, of course, was in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when the economy desperately needed additional capital investments, and when Republicans fought tooth and nail to slash spending, no matter the consequences.

In 2012, then-candidate Mitt Romney told voters to remind their friends, “[I]f they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy – more free stuff.” Five months later, after he lost, Romney told donors Obama won re-election because he bribed voters with “big gifts.”

A few years later, Jeb Bush ran for president touting a similar message, arguing in reference to his party, “Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”

And yet, here we are, watching Mitch McConnell effectively tell his constituents that they should re-elect him precisely because of his ability to deliver free stuff to the people of Kentucky.

If McConnell is still in the Senate the next time there’s a Democratic president, and he starts railing against the evils of federal investments, let’s revisit his 2019 pitch.