The Magazine

The Senate's New Mr. Conservative

Mitch McConnell loses on campaign finance, but gains influence.

Mar 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 25 • By FRED BARNES
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THIS IS A MOMENT OF DEFEAT for Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But he's hardly in agony. He concedes campaign finance reform, which he's been fighting in one form or another for more than a decade, will soon be enacted. Yet he struggles on. At best, he can hold up the legislation for a few weeks, time enough, he thinks, to gain a few small concessions from its sponsors. Once the measure is signed by President Bush, he promises to be plaintiff number one in a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. Sure, the media will again denounce McConnell. "I enjoy their ire," he says.

McConnell's role in the Senate--indeed, inside the Republican party and among conservatives--is growing. He's now "counselor" to Senate GOP leader Trent Lott. He attends leadership meetings and offers advice on strategy. Later this year, he's likely to win the post of Republican whip, replacing Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who's term-limited in the post. He's running against Larry Craig of Idaho, but McConnell's allies insist he's already lined up enough votes. If so, he'll give Senate Republicans a second-in-command who's as combative and relentless as House GOP whip Tom DeLay.

McConnell's rise is remarkable in a number of ways. He's known far more for what he opposes than for what he favors. In fact, he's not identified with any particular initiative. Rather than "growing" in the eyes of the Washington establishment since he was first elected in 1984--which means drifting to the left--McConnell has become more conservative. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina once feared McConnell would be a tepid defender of the tobacco industry. As it turned out, he's ferocious in fighting the anti-tobacco lobby. McConnell is anything but a darling of the media. The wall of his Senate office is covered with dozens of hostile cartoons from newspapers. "I'm proud of my enemies," McConnell says. "I wouldn't trade them for anything." Nor is McConnell the most popular Republican among his peers. "He's something of an acquired taste," says former senator Slade Gorton of Washington state.

There are basically five criteria for being an effective conservative leader in Congress, and McConnell, like DeLay, meets all five. One, you must be a principled conservative, not just temperamentally or situationally conservative. Two, you must be unaffected by sharply critical press coverage, even oblivious to it. Three, you must be willing and sometimes eager to take on unpopular causes. Four, you must find satisfaction in blocking bad legislation, using any parliamentary tools available. And five, you must have the ability to build coalitions.

When McConnell arrived in Washington after upsetting Democratic Sen. Dee Huddleston, he was largely an unknown quantity to conservatives. He wasn't viewed as a future leader. McConnell says he's "always been well right of center," but he acknowledges his years in Congress have also had an effect. "When you witness so many bad ideas gain steam, it does have a tendency to make you more conservative." Helms, for one, soon saw McConnell as someone who would "advance in the leadership." McConnell did, only gradually. He chaired the ethics and commerce committees, ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, from 1996 to 2000, then became Lott's adviser. McConnell is expected to win reelection easily in November.

McConnell's relationship with the media is mostly adversarial. He's feuded with his hometown paper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, over fund-raising for the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville, his alma mater, and connections his wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, has with China. "He's not a publicity hound of any kind," says Gorton. But neither is he like Helms or President Reagan in their knack for ignoring the press. "They actually didn't read the press," McConnell says. "I read it and enjoy it, but I'm unfazed by it." This, of course, is empowering, allowing him to take strong conservative positions without fretting about press coverage. In fact, McConnell says he takes "perverse pleasure" in alienating the media on campaign finance reform.

And not only on campaign reform. McConnell is a magnet for unpopular causes--or at least causes the mainstream media dislike. He's pro-tobacco, pro-gun, pro-business, skeptical of environmental regulation and election reform. His signature issue is campaign restrictions, contesting them. He first delved into the subject while teaching a night course in American political parties in the mid-1970s. "I've had both an academic and practical interest in this," McConnell says. When he got to Washington, he quickly realized he knew more about the subject than anyone else. "And often," he says, "knowledge is power."