September 28, 2020, 9:41

Mitch McConnell’s shameless pursuit of power, explained

Mitch McConnell’s shameless pursuit of power, explained

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a nihilist.

More than any other politician in recent memory, his life is a monument to self-dealing and partisan hackery.

His devotion to winning at all costs, to ensuring there are no limits on private money in politics, to bending the rules and shunning public opinion, has done incalculable damage to constitutional norms in the US. As my colleague Andrew Prokop noted back in 2017, McConnell has almost singlehandedly broken the Senate — and with it, American politics.

New Yorker writer Jane Mayer is the latest to take a deep dive into the life and mind of McConnell. In a lengthy profile for the April 20, 2020 issue, Mayer documents McConnell’s capitulations to President Donald Trump and tries to explain what’s motivating them — or at least what people who know McConnell think is motivating him.

Her answer is familiar: power. It’s the only thing McConnell appears to want, and there’s no ideology behind it, no real worldview, no purpose. But Mayer manages to unearth some new revelations about McConnell’s corruption and some of the behind-the-scenes dealings.

I spoke to Mayer by phone about what she learned, what surprised her, and what she thinks of McConnell’s role in shaping the modern Republican Party. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What did you learn about McConnell over the course of this story that you didn’t know when you walked into it?

Jane Mayer

I guess I thought that he was an ideologue of a certain kind, and what I discovered is that he actually has almost no fixed ideology. It’s pretty hard to find any important issue that he hasn’t switched positions on at some point or another when it was convenient for him. Whether it’s abortion or campaign spending or many other issues, he just switches like a chameleon when he needs to, and I hadn’t really realized how many times he’s done this and how easily he did it.

Sean Illing

I interviewed one of McConnell’s biographers, Alec MacGillis, and he pointed to the same thing: There’s just no consistent commitment to anything in McConnell’s political life except for winning the next election.

Jane Mayer

What’s interesting, and MacGillis writes about this in his book on McConnell, is that this very much reflects the trajectory of the Republican Party since maybe the Reagan years. I covered Reagan for the Wall Street Journal and there was at least some content to the ideology at that point, which was sort of a rebellion against liberalism in favor of small government. But all we have now, and McConnell really exemplifies this, is a cult of winning.

Sean Illing

A lot of the conservatives you quote criticize McConnell for his obsequiousness toward Trump, but I’m curious if you talked to Republicans who defended McConnell or at least rationalized his nihilism in this moment.

Jane Mayer

Well, there’s Chris Christie, who sort of admires McConnell in the way that people who think gaining and retaining power is the only measure admire him. But I don’t know, McConnell has this reputation as a shrewd political operator, but some of the concessions he’s making to Trump may backfire on him in a big way.

Sean Illing

Do you think McConnell will live to regret his capitulation to Trump?

Jane Mayer

I think the only measure will be who wins. He’ll think he did the right thing if he’s reelected and his Republican majority holds in the Senate. Nothing else matters. If Trump’s reelected, he’ll think he played it smart. But to be honest, I don’t even think he’s a big supporter of Trump. Based on what people around him told me, I think he would have been just as happy, if not happier, if Trump had been defeated because then he, McConnell, would’ve been the most important Republican in the country and the most powerful.

Sean Illing

Someone you quoted said that the GOP changed beneath McConnell’s feet and that he just rode the wave wherever it took him regardless of the costs. But as I read your piece, I kept wondering if that almost lets McConnell off the hook in a way. You could say that McConnell is a reflection of his times, or you could say that he helped make the times what they are. I’d argue it’s the latter — what do you think?

Jane Mayer

Oh, I totally agree that it’s the latter. He’s not just a passive bystander in this. McConnell is an active participant in this devolution; he has helped push the country in a certain direction. I interviewed a historian who I didn’t end up quoting in the end but who’s an expert in the rise of Hitler before World War II, and he was likening McConnell to Paul von Hindenburg, a German statesman who was part of the political establishment and thought he could control an autocrat and realized too late that he had unleashed something he couldn’t contain.

Now, I want to be clear and say that there’s no analogy to that period in history, but the historian’s point, which I think is right, is that there’s at least a weak echo of this in McConnell’s orientation to someone like Trump. McConnell is just chasing power wherever it takes him, and in doing that, he has actively shaped the world we’re in right now.

Sean Illing

Pushing the country “in a certain direction” is an interesting choice of words and gets at what’s so maddening about McConnell. It would somehow be better if he at least believed in something, even if it was an insanely blinkered worldview. But it’s so obvious that he doesn’t care which direction we go, as long as he has a seat at the table when we get there.

Jane Mayer

It’s all tactical, no strategy, no vision. I talked to John Yarmuth, a Democratic congressman from Louisville, who told me that McConnell’s very smart but he’s not intellectual. If you tried to have a conversation with him about some big issue that we’re facing as a society, like climate change or artificial intelligence, he wouldn’t be able to have that conversation and he wouldn’t be interested in it. He’s interested in winning and nothing else. He’s devoted to the tactical game of politics in a way I just haven’t seen before.

Sean Illing

A conservative you cite in the piece said that McConnell is the most corrupt politician in the country. Is that how you feel after reporting this out?

Jane Mayer

Well, what’s corrupt? McConnell would say he’s doing nothing illegal, nothing we’d call criminal. I think he’s the case study in how our democracy has been captured by private interests instead of public interests. It’s a deeply corrupt process that has hurt the country, even if it isn’t technically illegal. McConnell has played a huge role in legalizing all of these practices.

Sean Illing

We’re short on time, but I want to highlight a couple examples of the sort of corruption you’re talking about. You described a $250,000 donation to an academic center at the University of Louisville named after McConnell.

What happened there?

Jane Mayer

There’s a judge named Gregory Van Tatenhove, who is on the federal court in Kentucky. His appointment was pushed by McConnell. He was championed by McConnell, and I learned that this judge’s wife later contributed $250,000 to an academic center that’s named for McConnell. It’s called the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and it has a permanent exhibit that honors McConnell’s career and place in history. Is that corruption? It looks a lot like a “thank you for putting me on the bench,” and maybe a way to curry favor with McConnell for any future promotions to a higher bench.

All that said, I just have to say that we got commentary and pushback from the judge who said it was not his money, that it was his wife’s money and that it has nothing to do with his judgeship. It’s just because his wife went to the University of Louisville and was a supporter of that center, which had supported her when she was an undergraduate.

People can judge for themselves. $250,000 is a lot of money from the wife of a federal judge. That’s a very big gift, and I filed a public records search to find out about what money was going into the McConnell Center. It’s a cause McConnell really cares about. If you want to please him, it’s a good way to do it.

Sean Illing

This “contribution” wasn’t public knowledge?

Jane Mayer

I guess that money was not disclosed in any kind of public way. I got the records through a records search, but it took a long time before they were made available, and that contribution was hidden. It was just an unnamed bank account, and I had to go back at them a second time to make them disclose to me whose bank account it was. It wasn’t as if this was something that was being publicly mentioned in any big way at the time when I was reporting on it.

Sean Illing

Tell me about Joe and Kelly Craft.

Jane Mayer

Joe Craft is one of the bigger coal barons in America, and his company, Alliance Resource Partners, has been a big backer of McConnell. His wife, Kelly Craft, with the help of McConnell, was nominated and confirmed first as ambassador to Canada by Trump and now ambassador to the United Nations.

Now, this is a position that’s been held by people like Adlai Stevenson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan — serious people. Someone I interviewed told me it was just “unbelievable” to appoint her to that position. It is, for all intents and purposes, the first real job that Kelly Craft has had. She’s a fundraiser without much experience in the diplomatic world. It looks, again, like a nice fat “thank you” for a donor’s wife.

Sean Illing

I know you have to go, so one last question: How would you sum up McConnell’s impact on American politics?

Jane Mayer

That’s a big question. I see McConnell as having legitimized the role of money in overwhelming our democracy — that’s his biggest legacy. I think his second-biggest legacy is in having placed the pursuit of power over the public good during the Trump years. That’s how he’ll be remembered.

Sourse: vox.com

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