The Magazine

Mitch-Slapping the Democrats

Leading the opposition comes naturally to McConnell.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By FRED LUCAS
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Mitch McConnell's will to win, developed at an early age, fell short when as president of the Student Bar Association at the University of Kentucky law school he failed in his effort to institute a student honor code. It was a major defeat in his early political life. "I laid my prestige on the line and lost," says McConnell, sitting cross-legged under a chandelier in the Republican leadership office, shortly after debating a spending bill on the Senate floor. "It's an example of a leader getting out in front of his constituents too far and not bringing them along." The lesson was learned: "You can't lead if you don't have any followers."

Whether voters or other senators, the new minority leader has succeeded in amassing followers--and a lot of political cash, reportedly some $220 million over his Senate career. Together these have been key to his success, both in building up the Republican party in Kentucky, and now in holding the Republican caucus together when it counts--as when the Republicans stopped a vote on a Democratic antiwar resolution in February.

A masterful strategist, McConnell doesn't rely on charisma or good looks. He speaks in a subdued voice and his handshake isn't the firmest. Nor does he cultivate the tough guy image of a Lyndon Johnson or Tom DeLay. Republican colleagues describe him as a good listener and consensus builder, both in the role of Senate majority whip from 2003 to 2007 and now as minority leader.

"He's long headed," said Utah conservative Bob Bennett. "A charismatic leader is like someone in the movies who bursts on to the scene and in the next reel he's in charge. [McConnell's] not cut out for the movies. He thinks four or five or six moves ahead and takes that first step to set up the sixth move."

Republican caucus meetings are much briefer under McConnell than they were under Bill Frist and Trent Lott, Bennett said, as McConnell tends to cut to the heart of a matter. Gordon Smith of Oregon--a moderate who's been on the opposite side of an issue from McConnell, having joined Chuck Hagel in siding with Democrats on a timeline for leaving Iraq--attests the leader is a good whip on almost every occasion.

"He understands that each state is different and the needs of the folks there are different, and at the end of the day he gets the numbers to win," said Smith, who nominated McConnell for the leadership role.

In his nomination speech, Smith talked about McConnell's drive to overcome obstacles going back to a childhood battle with polio. At the age of two, he was treated at the clinic in Warm Springs, Georgia, founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt. His earliest memory is of his last visit there.

When he was released, he could walk, but doctors feared that putting pressure on the left leg would cause abnormal growth, so they instructed his mother to keep him off his feet until he was four, while she administered physical therapy three times a day.

"She must have watched me like a hawk--all day, every day," McConnell reflects. "There have been a lot of things written about how formative the first five years in life are. I've always felt that experience probably had a big impact on my feeling, which is that only those people in life are defeated who give up."

McConnell would eventually become student body president at the University of Louisville, then student bar president at the University of Kentucky law school--ending up nicely positioned to curry favor with both Cardinal and Wildcat fans in his sports heavy state.

After interning for his hero, Kentucky senator John Sherman Cooper--an experience that crystallized his own ambition to serve in the Senate--and serving in the Ford Justice Department, McConnell went home and got himself elected Jefferson County judge-executive. At the time, it was the highest political office in Louisville, the only truly liberal part of Kentucky.

He served in the post from 1978 through 1984, when he entered a long-shot contest against popular Democratic senator Dee Huddleston. He released the famous "Where's Dee?" ad featuring a pack of bloodhounds hunting for the incumbent, known for missing votes. McConnell was the only Republican in the country that year to beat an incumbent Democratic senator (by a hair), in part because Ronald Reagan carried Kentucky by 21 points.

But Kentucky was still a Democratic state: The governor, both houses of the legislature, five of seven U.S. House members, and the senior senator were all Democrats and had been for over two decades. McConnell had to be clever.