Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Long Game by Mitch McConnell (Book Review #3 of 2017)

The end of 2016 and, frankly, the events following January 20th, 2017 have stolen my will to read and write.


  The Long Game: A Memoir by Mitch McConnell

This is, I believe, the 4th autobiography by a Senator that I have read (Clinton, Cruz, Paul, Rubio). I read it because I'm a Kentuckian and I like to know who is representing me. This book lends Mitch McConnell to the criticisms of liberals lately, namely that McConnell lives to empower McConnell at the expense of anything else. In fact, the New York Review of Books review of this book and Alec MacGillis' biography have more interesting detail about McConnell's rise than this does. The "Long Game" McConnell's title refers to is that of his lifelong desire to be Majority Leader. He states this motivation up front, unapologetically, so I guess he gets points for not pretending to be motivated by public service or maintaining fidelity to America's founding principles. James Madison knew the personal ambitions of politicians when he wrote the Constitution, writes McConnell, so he embraces that ambition rather than hide it. He now has the power he has always sought and will fight to keep it.

The tragic irony of this book is that McConnell criticizes the scorched-earth politics of the right wing of his party (Jim DeMint is the only Republican name McConnell heaps scorn on) while he has engaged in it against the Democrats for his entire career. He speaks of the need to compromise and work across the aisle but never demonstrates it himself. The Senate ceased to be the world's longest-running and most-admired deliberative body when McConnell was willing to put politics ahead of America and refuse to hear Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court. That event is not in the book, but is the logical result of an entire career built on playing political games for personal power. The only principles he fought tooth-and-nail for was to attack McCain-Feingold's campaign finance reforms all the way to the Supreme Court. That appears to be his proudest accomplishment as a legislator.

McConnell was born in Alabama and lived a stint in Georgia before his family moved to Louisville. He claims his parents were "unusual" by instilling in himself a belief in the importance of civil rights despite being Southerners with strong Confederate history. (The picture below suggests McConnell may not necessarily disown that history.)


His father wrote him a letter about his happiness over the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even while McConnell was a staffer for an ultra-conservative Congressman who opposed it. Oddly, McConnell mentions admiration for Kentuckian Henry Clay, whose actions perpetuated slavery, and does not mention Henry's brother Cassius Clay. This is sharp contrast to fellow Senator Rand Paul, who writes that Cassius and not Henry is the most admirable of the two. But McConnell does not seem to be a deep thinker or particularly well-read. If he enjoys the arts, he does so with his immediate family, who he refuses to talk about in the book-- making the memoir somewhat cold and impersonal. The only thing he returns to as his love in the book is University of Louisville sports, living and dying by every game.

The future Majority Leader got his start running for student body president at Emmanuel high, when he had the ingenious idea of lining up endorsements from popular kids and publicizing them. McConnell kept up the student body campaigning and even led a civil rights march at the University of Louisville while he worked for aforementioned Republican congressman. He regrets Barry Goldwater's positions. (According to McConnell, he also stood up to Pres. Reagan on apartheid in his first Senate term.) He went to law school and got married, and then regretted the marriage and divorced (and that's all he has to say about that, as well as his children from that marriage who he apparently has good relations with). It is never clear in the book why McConnell is a Republican. His dad had liked Eisenhower, but it's not clear why McConnell disliked Kennedy.

Once a lawyer, McConnell realized he hated practicing law and would die if he had to do that every day, he missed politics and felt that was his calling. He got a job working in the Justice Department where the bureaucracy was like purgatory. He escaped and ran for Jefferson County Judge Executive, a powerful position over the state's largest county, beating incumbent Todd Hollenbeck (who would remain in state politics for years). He was re-elected in 1981 and mentions he went through his divorce. McConnell decided to run for US Senate on a platform of limited government, fiscal conservativism, etc.

In the midst of that 1984 campaign, when things weren't going well, McConnell has what appears to be his only spiritual moment in the book. On the edge of a nervous breakdown, living alone, he seemingly almost wants to surrender his life, will, and campaign to God. But in that moment he gets off his knees, somehow puts away his doubts, and resolves that the Senate is all he really wants. McConnell hired Roger Ailes to manage his media, and a new Republican marriage was made. Aile's famous ad from this race is the bloodhound ad, attacking his incumbent opponent's voting record. McConnell squeaked out 5,100 vote win. He benefited from large campaign backing, raising almost $3.2 million in today's dollars, which was unheard of back then. Not incidentally, keeping campaign finance reform laws off the books becomes the issue he delves most deeply into in his memoir.

McConnell's dad died as he won re-election but he would soon meet Elaine Chao and fall in love. He opened the McConnell Center at Louisville and attends as many football and basketball games as he can. As he advanced up the Senate leadership, he opposed campaign finance reform, refused to sign Gingrich's Contract with America (Mitch opposes term limits), and breaks with conservatives on flag burning because of the same Constitutional principles. He made the decision to expel Bob Packwood from the Senate. He liked managing the floor, whipping up votes, etc. Everything was another step closer to the Majority Leader position.

The Senator from Kentucky spends much of his criticisms on Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama. He rehashes the 1990s Clinton impeachment but perhaps considers the midnight pardon of Mark Rich to be the most egregious act-- "Even Jimmy Carter said it was disgraceful." Obama, meanwhile, is professorial who wastes time lecturing Republicans rather than getting to work or letting them do their jobs. Perhaps the greatest sign of respect he shows for Obama was when candidate Obama came to DC with John McCain in the campaign suspension in the midst of the financial crisis. Obama spoke for the Democrats at the meeting, clearly understood the issues, and clearly had the Democratic establishment deferring to him. That, Mitch says, is the when they knew what they were in for. Even where McConnell basically admits that the debt ceiling debacles were Republicans' fault, and blames his right-wing, it's still Obama's fault for scolding them or giving speeches when they needed to work out negotiations, etc. He tells the old saw that Boehner or McConnell could take phone calls from Obama, put the phone down, pick it up minutes later and the President would still be lecturing about the virtues of his position.

There is a noted lack of hindsight bias in his view on the 2003 Iraq war. McConnell believes we should have attacked Iraq FASTER, and states it would have been "reckless to dismiss the intelligence" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He ignores that he (like all other Senators) never looked at the intelligence report the CIA made available to the Senate-- he took the Administration's word for it. It does not enter his memoir that the intelligence was wrong, or that it's been a trillion dollar mistake, etc. He doubles down by saying Qaddafi's giving up his weapons was a vindication of Bush policy, in which he must be either ignorant or intentionally deceitful-- negotiations with Qaddafi had been ongoing since the Reagan Administration and had little to do with Iraq. We've since seen what happens when you break Libya, anyway. Maybe just as alarmingly, McConnell never mentions the sscandals and other GOP problems that cost them the 2006 midterms, which also led to Democratic overhaul of ethics. If you hadn't actually kept up with the news during this period you might not notice its absence, but fortunately I was watching closely at the time.

Jim DeMint, who would go on to head the Heritage Foundation, is McConnell's only Republican foil in the book. It's clear at times he's talking about Ted Cruz but never mentions his name. DeMint would "backbite" but not air grievances privately with members, instead preferring leaks to the press or public shows. McConnell fought against his right wing in passing the TARP and was determined not to let the Senate cave to populist pressures in the face of financial meltdown. Yet, the Tea Party fervor that DeMint whipped up provided the "resurrection of the Republican Party," particularly the Tea Party outrage about Obamacare. McConnell rehashes some of the politics of the ACA but ignores the years-long negotiations with insurance companies, the town hall meetings, meetings with President Obama, input by economists and other Republicans, etc. He blasts the partisan nature of the ACA but never once mentions the partisan tricks Republicans used when passing Medicare Part D.

Another enemy of McConnell is the media, particularly the Louisville Courier-Journal. McConnell oddly keeps a collection of negative stories written about him, often having the writer or cartoonist autograph it. He criticizes the C-J for forgiving Democrats like Robert Byrd for using the n-word while hypocritically calling on Republicans to resign for saying it. McConnell grew to power while his hometown grew more liberal. He got used to having organized rallies outside his home, or signs on his lawn. But he was increasingly uneasy about the growing threat from Republicans. His 2008 race was rather close and was quite emotional. His manager convinces him not to throw in the towel when he's this closer to being Majority Leader. He reserves criticisms of his 2014 primary opponent, Matt Bevin, probably because Bevin went on to become Governor, but it is clear McConnell relished the primary win. He clearly hated the Tea Party Republicans that were supporting Bevin.

Fending off the Tea Party and increasing the debt ceiling while seeing sequester implemented was the next "great accomplishment" for the Majority Leader. His greatest annoyance is having to miss Louisville games either on TV or in person during these trials. He notes the need to "be at peace with imperfect outcomes" and treats his right wing like petulant children. He notes that Democrats have a similar problem of eating their own in a quest for ideological purity, and seems skeptical of functioning politics but never acknowledges that his own use of Senate rules and playing scorched-earth politics helped contribute to the environment.

He is also proud of his work in support of Burmese dissident Aung Sung Suu Kyi. (Hillary Clinton also praised McConnell for this work.) That is just about the only admirable part of the memoir. Another annoying note, he's reading his own book. He pronounces 2004 "twenty oh-four" and does so for all the aughts; that's odd. I give this book 3 stars out of 5. If you've followed his career, or the news enough to remember what he's not mentioning then it will irk you like it did me. If not, you probably think better of McConnell after reading the memoir.