Many years ago, I worked on a documentary about the how and why of political TV ads. The primary focus was on two media consultants: the late Bob Squier, a Democrat; and Bob Goodman, Republican.
One ad of which Goodman was especially proud was for a fellow in Kentucky running against Todd Hollenbach, Sr., the incumbent judge/executive of Jefferson County. Produced in 1977, the spot featured a farmer complaining about taxes that he claimed Judge Hollenbach had raised and then lied about.
As he mucked out a barn and his faithful horse whinnied, the farmer declared, “Maybe Hollenbach ought to have my job, because in my business, I deal with that kind of stuff every day.”
Then he threw a shovel of manure right at the camera.
Hollenbach lost to the candidate who approved this message: Mitch McConnell.
McConnell has been shoveling it ever since, but perhaps never as stunningly as on Tuesday, when he spoke from the floor of the US Senate. The now-majority leader of the so-called greatest deliberative body in the world blustered, as he has several times in the last couple of weeks, that Senate Republicans would never, ever consider an appointment by President Obama to replace the still-dead Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The president, McConnell then said, “has every right to nominate someone, even if doing so will inevitably plunge our nation into another bitter and avoidable struggle.”
Excuse me, Senator, the bitter and undeniably avoidable struggle was created by you on the Saturday that Scalia’s corpse was found. The body was barely cold when you crassly announced that the duly-elected President of the United States should not name the judge’s successor but must leave it to the next president – more than 300 days from now.
McConnell continued, “Even if he never expects that nominee to be actually confirmed but rather to wield as an election cudgel, he certainly has the right to do that.” Again, Senator, it’s you who is wielding the blunt object.
And then the majority leader had the chutzpah, as they say down home in his Bluegrass State, to add that Barack Obama also “has the right to make a different choice. He can let the people decide and make this an actual legacy-building moment rather than just another campaign roadshow.”
Oh brother, look who’s talking. Of all the pompous, insincere bloviation; ignoring courtesy, tradition – let alone the US Constitution – in the name of Senator McConnell’s own misbegotten ambitions.
Psychiatrists call this “projection,” the defensive method by which people take their own negative beliefs or feelings and attribute them to someone else – otherwise known as shifting blame. In McConnell’s case, add to it a megadose of the cynical manipulation and crass opportunism characteristic of most of his political career.
Not that it was always so. McConnell began his political life as a liberal Republican – remember them? — interning for legendary Kentucky senator and statesman John Sherman Cooper. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and collective bargaining. Friends say he was pro-Planned Parenthood and he even wrote an op-ed piece in the Louisville Courier-Journal favoring campaign finance reform. Former McConnell press secretary Meme Sweets Runyon told Jason Cherkis and Zach Carter at The Huffington Post, “He was kind of a good-government guy. He thought the government could do good and could be a solution.”
But once Mitch McConnell got to Washington as an elected senator and the mood of the Republican Party shifted right, so did he. Delay and obstruction became stepping stones. At the same time, the man who New York Times columnist Gail Collins famously described as having “the natural charisma of an oyster,” developed a Jekyll-and-Hyde style of self-serving pragmatism – bashing government from Capitol Hill but using all of its perks to bolster support among his constituents.
In 2013, Cherkis and Carter wrote:
Up until the tea party-led ban on earmarks a few years ago, McConnell played out this dichotomy across Kentucky. In Washington, he voted against a health care program for poor children. In Kentucky, he funneled money to provide innovative health services for pregnant women. In Washington, he railed against Obamacare. In Kentucky, he supported free health care and prevention programs paid for by the federal government without the hassle of a private-insurance middleman. This policy ping-pong may not suggest a coherent belief system, but it has led to loyalty among the GOP in Washington and something close to fealty in Kentucky. It has advanced McConnell’s highest ideal: his own political survival.
“McConnell’s hold on Kentucky is a grim reminder of the practice of power in America — where political excellence can be wholly divorced from successful governance and even public admiration,” the Huffington Post reporters continued. “The most dominant and influential Kentucky politician since his hero Henry Clay, McConnell has rarely used his indefatigable talents toward broad, substantive reforms. He may be ruling, but he’s ruling over a commonwealth with the lowest median income in the country, where too many counties have infant mortality rates comparable to those of the Third World. His solutions have been piecemeal and temporary, more cynical than merciful.”
And so it goes. “He privileges the scoreboard above all,” The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos wrote in 2014. “Asked about his ideological evolution, he explained simply, ‘I wanted to win.’”
Tailoring his positions to adjust to the shifting seasons, what sets Mitch McConnell apart is that his motives aren’t really ideological but so baldly about holding onto personal power. His opposition to Obama’s naming of a Scalia replacement puts the majority leader in solid with the far-right Republicans he purportedly so dislikes but who have threatened his job security over the last few years, both at home and in DC.
What’s more, McConnell is desperate to keep a conservative majority on the Court to preserve the unbridled flow of campaign cash that the Citizens United decision let loose and that he so successfully has tapped for himself and the GOP. Unlike the young man who penned that campaign finance reform op-ed back in Louisville, fundraising has become his favorite thing, and he’s scary good at it. As his former Republican Senate colleague Alan Simpson said, “When he asked for money, his eyes would shine like diamonds. He obviously loved it.”
And even if a Democrat holds onto the White House next year, chances are McConnell – the man who once said that the most important thing was to make Barack Obama a one-term president — will still play a power broker role in determining which Supreme Court candidate will successively run the 60-vote supermajority gauntlet needed for Senate approval. It’s good to be king.
But if he wants us all to wait for a Republican president to choose the next appointment to the Court, he might want to think twice. Donald Trump bows before no man – just ask him — and he shovels muck even better than that farmer who helped Mitch McConnell win his first public office.
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