Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is an uncomplicated man. He likes to win, and there's something fascinating in that single-mindedness. There's no glad-handing, no attempt to connect with voters or even to try to appear to care about what they care about. McConnell doesn't pretend to be someone he's not — his hypocrisies are the blatant kind and, I assume, justifiable in his mind.
A moment from McConnell's news conference Tuesday in Kentucky was a testament to this simplicity. The bespectacled 79-year-old told attendees that he was "astonished" to see that the Biden administration wanted to pass the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan:
Well, it passed, on a straight party-line vote. Not a single member of my party voted for it. So you're going to get a lot more money. I didn't vote for it. But you're going to get a lot more money. Cities and counties in Kentucky are getting close to 7 or 800 million dollars. If you add up the total amount that'll come into our state, $4 billion, that's twice what we sent in last year. So my advice to members of the legislatures and other public officials is "spend it wisely," because hopefully this windfall doesn’t come around again.
Most politicians would be touting that kind of investment in their home states, even if they didn't agree with the circumstances of its arrival. It's what we've been seeing for months from Republicans around the country in the wake of the stimulus package.
But not McConnell, who all but holds the package at arm's length. Nothing about what that money could be spent on comes out of his mouth in those moments, nothing about how those billions could improve the lives of Kentuckians, nothing that admits that actual human beings would benefit from federal spending.
See, McConnell may talk about helping the American people when he delivers speeches from the Senate floor in his drawling monotone as he prepares to deploy yet another GOP-led filibuster. But a win for the people isn't the same as a win in the game McConnell is playing — and he clearly draws a line between the two.
At least, that's the message I've come away with from years of profiles and interviews and other attempts to add nuance to a figure who has loomed over Washington politics for the last dozen-odd years. The latest attempt came Tuesday in The Atlantic, where staff writer Peter Nicholas tried to unpack McConnell's view of his own legacy. As Nichols notes, after the next midterms, McConnell is likely to become the longest-serving caucus leader in the Senate, which is the kind of thing that usually tends to spur self-reflection.
Instead, what emerges is a portrait of a creature of Washington who goes through the motions of politics' "friendly combat," as McConnell puts it, for no other purpose than the thrill of it:
For McConnell, politics is sport. He’s won and lost and is now aiming to recapture his old title of Senate majority leader in the 2022 midterm elections. “If you’re a football fan, it’s like the difference between being the offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator,” McConnell told me. “The offensive coordinator has a better chance to score.” But for many Americans, rarely has politics been less of a game. ...
Any long view of McConnell’s tenure would dwell more on what he’s blocked than on what he’s built; what he’s against, not what he’s for. When I asked Republicans close to McConnell what he cares about most, it was striking how little they mentioned policy. They talked instead about his fixation on winning the game.
If there's a deeper philosophy to be found, it's in his disdain for rules that make it harder to win. His signature issue before rising to the Senate GOP leadership was dismantling any efforts at real campaign finance reform. As a 2019 profile noted, McConnell adopted "a position that blended a constitutional free-speech argument with a frank acknowledgment of practical expediency" in that fight. He also gambled that becoming the villain in that case was "likely to cost him little more than bad press and earn him the gratitude of his caucus and political capital within it."
If there's a deeper philosophy to be found, it's in McConnell's disdain for rules that make it harder to win.
That willingness to be the bad guy in the media on issues that help Republicans win structurally, both in Senate debate and in their re-election campaigns, is the legacy McConnell will one day leave behind. And that's what I think I find so fascinating about him, this hollowness. There's nothing to decode or discern in McConnell's aims or motives. As far as villains go, he's more one-dimensional than most moviegoers would accept in this day and age.
It's confounding that someone could devote his entire life to the acquisition and wielding of power and yet have such little care for how it's deployed except in the interest of retaining that power. And nevertheless, McConnell persists, gumming up the works for the Biden agenda in hope of getting his old title back.
If and when he does, though, I hope the people of Kentucky remember what he told them: There are no more windfalls coming. Not if they don't help him win.