Here’s a line you can expect to hear in almost every ad for a Democratic candidate for Senate between now and Nov. 8, 2022, courtesy of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.: “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration.”
McConnell is usually pretty careful about what he says in public. The Senate minority leader didn’t get to the head of his caucus by popping off at the mouth like some of his members are prone to do, which is why McConnell’s latest misstep is such a surprise — and such a rare gift for Democrats.
The ironic thing is McConnell’s Kinsley gaffe was the result of him trying to maintain his usual message discipline. Speaking at an event in Georgetown, Kentucky, McConnell was asked yet again about the ongoing fracas across the Capitol. Rather than weigh in on the fight between Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and the rest of her party over former President Donald Trump, McConnell sidestepped — and fell right into a pit of metaphorical swords.
McConnell was probably hoping the latter half of his statement was what would draw more attention: “I think the best way to look at what this new administration is: The president may have won the nomination, but Bernie Sanders won the argument.” It’s been a common refrain from him and other GOP senators that after campaigning as a moderate, President Joe Biden is basically doing the bidding of his party’s left flank.
Instead, McConnell gave a perfect soundbite that confirmed what everyone had already assumed: Republicans in the Senate under McConnell’s leadership have already decided, much as they did under President Barack Obama, to stonewall anything the president wants to pass.
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel compared McConnell’s slip to a police interrogation, where repeatedly being asked the same question sometimes leads the subject to make an error. That makes sense; McConnell has gotten so used to dodging questions about Trump and GOP infighting that for a moment he forgot to keep the focus squarely on Biden and not himself.
McConnell tried to tone down his comment some Thursday, telling a reporter, "My view at the moment is we need to turn this administration into a moderate administration." But it's too late — there's no way that clip hasn't already made its way into hundreds of pitch emails from Democratic ad-makers to senators up for re-election next year. (And as I argued last week, Biden's agenda is moderate, just not in the way Republicans want to define it.)
Moreover, in the short term he’s handed the Biden administration and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., all the excuses they need to sidestep the Republicans in negotiations over future priorities. Why bother wasting time negotiating with Republicans when there’s tape of McConnell saying all of his focus is on blocking everything Biden brings to the table?
Normally, I’d at least wonder if McConnell threw himself on this particular grenade on purpose. He’s been completely willing to draw heat for unpopular proposals and positions in the past, not caring about any dings he might take so long as his goal was met. A 2019 New York Times profile credited his rise to “his shrugging willingness to play a villain when a villain was required.” The Washington Post last year likewise described his mantra as “Do what it takes to rise to power, and enjoy the criticism.”
But I don’t think that’s the case here. His comments weren’t about distracting from the House’s drama; he was doing his best to avoid the spotlight and keep from having to take a side in the struggle between Cheney and the pro-Trump members of the House. There’s no chance I can see of this being a wily Batman gambit — or even an Indy ploy — from McConnell. No, this is just a case where McConnell has handed the Democrats the stick with which they shall proceed to beat him for the next two years.