Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mitch McConnell’s 47 percent moment


POLITICIANS, UGLY buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Noah Cross’ timeless advice to Jake Gittes in the 1974 film “Chinatown” is an enduring truth, in business and — sure as hell — in government. That pithy observation of the power of blind endurance has powered the career of Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell for decades.

The Senate Minority Leader is engaging in yet another scorched-earth campaign, this time against Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state and McConnell’s able Democratic challenger. McConnell’s pulling out all the stops, trying hard to paint Grimes as a surrogate for President Obama in a state that rejected Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

The senator, who’s prided himself on his track record, has a tough opponent in Grimes, whose family has an estimable history in Kentucky politics (her father was a former Democratic chairman and state representative). But thanks to a story by Lauren Windsor published online Wednesday in The Nation, we see how McConnell may be forced to confront his own words on the campaign trail. Comments he made in June to a conclave of millionaires and billionaires — including the infamous Koch brothers — may well be his undoing, a divisive statement of objective not unlike Mitt Romney’s fatal “47 percent” comments in Boca Raton, Fla., during the 2012 race.

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McConnell’s self-comeuppance may have started with an interview with Politico, last week. In the Aug. 20 interview with Manu Raju, McConnell laid bare his scheme to effectively dismantle the Obama legislative agenda by imposing a series of riders on appropriations bills if Republicans wrest control of the Senate in November.

Raju reports: “The emerging strategy: Attach riders to spending bills that would limit Obama policies on everything from the environment to health care, consider using an arcane budget tactic to circumvent Democratic filibusters and force the president to ‘move to the center’ if he wants to get any new legislation through Congress.”

“We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell told Raju on a campaign swing through deep-red Kentucky coal country. “That’s something he won’t like, but that will be done. I guarantee it.”

McConnell said the president “needs to be challenged, and the best way to do that is through the funding process,. He would have to make a decision on a given bill, whether there’s more in it that he likes than dislikes.”

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THAT RELATIVELY benign expression of political strategy had a darker antecedent. In The Nation, Windsor reports: “What McConnell didn’t tell Politico was that two months ago, he made the same promise to a secret strategy conference of conservative millionaire and billionaire donors hosted by the Koch brothers.”

Windsor reports that The Nation and Lady Libertine, her political blog, obtained a recording of McConnell’s address to the donors. In a Q&A session after his June 15 talk, McConnell said: “So in the House and Senate, we own the budget. So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on healthcare, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board (inaudible). All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.”

He continued: “And we’re not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals. That’s all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage (inaudible)—cost the country 500,000 new jobs; extending unemployment—that’s a great message for retirees; uh, the student loan package the other day, that’s just going to make things worse.” (That last a reference to his part in blocking Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to help Americans refinance student loan debt.)

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McConnell also weighed in on the widely unpopular Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which existentially equalized corporations and human beings, money and free speech: “So all Citizens United did was to level the playing field for corporate speech,” he said. “We now have, I think, the most free and open system we’ve had in modern times.

“The Supreme Court allowed all of you to participate in the process in a variety of different ways. You can give to the candidate of your choice. You can give to Americans for Prosperity, or something else, a variety of different ways to push back against the party of government.” This despite Citizens United being increasingly reviled by Republicans and Democrats alike.

And then, in a statement that distills the GOP’s corporatist agenda like maybe nothing else could, McConnell said: “The fact of the matter is the Democrats are the party of government. We are the party of the private sector. They have a government solution for every single thing. And the government has wanted more over the years and to have the government itself picking up the tab for political campaigns and pushing the private sector all the way out.”

“But they’ve got a problem because the Supreme Court opened up the process, and we now have the opportunity (inaudible) to push back to try to stop this movement that’s been on (inaudible) the last six years.”

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DESPITE THIS procedural, anodyne presentation, this is clearly McConnell’s genuflection to the donor class. It’s a bid to replace what he sees as the administration’s “overreach” with the Republicans’ very own. It’s a strategy that would complicate the last two years of the Obama presidency with legislative snares and thickets meant to roll back advances in health care, campaign finance reform, environmental regulation and more — in the process reinforcing the distinctions between the nation’s wealthiest citizens and everyone else ... the same distinctions Romney championed in Boca Raton in 2012.


McConnell’s gambit has its risks. Politico’s Raju reports: “First, he must defeat a spirited Democratic challenger in November, while hoping that the class of Senate candidates he helped recruit doesn’t blow the GOP’s best chance in years to retake the majority. And, perhaps just as challenging, McConnell would need to bring unity to a party that is struggling to overcome divisions between establishment stalwarts like himself and young GOP upstarts pushing for conservative purity.”

And McConnell opens the door to possible blowback if he tries to ram through his own nuclear option — a shutdown of the government. “McConnell risks overreaching if he follows through with his pledge to attach policy riders to spending bills. If Obama refuses to accept such measures, a government shutdown could ensue. Republicans bore much of the blame for last year’s government shutdown, which was prompted by conservative tactics McConnell opposed,” Raju reported.

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McConnell’s plans also fly in the face of (among other things) a recent Republican poll that highlights the gulf between the GOP and American women — the cohort of voters who could make the difference between winning and losing this November and again in 2016. The survey, commissioned by the American Action Network and by Crossroads GPS, the PAC directed by turdblossom generalissimo Karl Rove, finds that women see the GOP as “intolerant,” “lacking in compassion” and “stuck in the past.”

According to the polling of 800 registered female voters earlier this year, 49 percent of women view Republicans unfavorably, while 39 percent view Democrats unfavorably. According to the survey results, Democrats have the edge on who “looks out for the interests of women,” as well as an advantage on which party “is tolerant of other people’s lifestyles.”

Politico reported Wednesday: “Female voters who care about the top four issues — the economy, health care, education and jobs — vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Most striking, Democrats hold a 35-point advantage with female voters who care about jobs and a 26 percent advantage when asked which party is willing to compromise.”

Katie Packer Gage, a political strategist who focuses on improving GOP standing with female voters, told Politico that women think of “old, white, right, out of touch” men when they think of the Republican Party. Men just like Mitch McConnell.

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WITH THE control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the findings of the survey could tip control of that body just enough — maybe by one race. Maybe the Kentucky Senate race, a contest that could be won by Alison Lundergan Grimes — a woman who might be able to tap into resentment felt by other women in the Bluegrass State, just enough to win.

On Sept. 8, the Senate votes on Joint Resolution 19, which if passed would amend the United States Constitution and repeal the Citizens United decision. Election Day is Nov. 4. Those’ll be big days for Mitch McConnell. The biggest one, Election Day (just 10 weeks away), could tell us just how strong the House of McConnell really is.

We’ll see. Just like a building, a politician’s respectable until the moment of demolition.

Image credits: McConnell: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images. The Nation logo: © 2014 The Nation Company L.P. Romney in Boca Raton: Mother Jones. Grimes: Patrick Delahanty (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

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