This is about Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky - or perhaps many of you guessed that already. I gave a speech to the Bellevue Washington Chamber of Commerce last June and told a story about Senator McConnell during the question and answer period. After my remarks, a gentleman came up to me - a former public official in Louisville who had changed careers and lifestyle by moving West - and underscored the point of my story by saying that "Mitch is just a most unpleasant man'.
My story goes back to January 4, 2001. Senator Kay Bailey Hutcheson of Texas had invited me to address the GOP Senate Retreat on that day and to assess the meaning of the 2000 election. She also requested that I project the results on how the nation would move forward after one of the closest elections in our history. (I should point out here that Senator Tom Daschle invited me to address the Democratic Senate Retreat a few days later and I decided to give the SAME speech. That is another story for another time.)
The theme of my talk was very simple: neither party won the election of 2000. The Democratic standard-bearer was Vice-President Al Gore who received 48% of the vote as did his opponent Governor George W. Bush. As for the congressional results, among those who voted for the Senate, the GOP and Democrats tied at 48% -- as did the votes for the House. There were no clear winners and I believed (as I still do now) that the voters expressed a very clear message: get down to problem-solving, to consensus-building, to an agenda based on commonalities. I, in fact, laid out an agenda - based on polling - that included some liberal items and some conservative items. My comments followed a powerpoint presentation by one of the GOP's in-house pollsters who blew blue smoke and laid out a kickass agenda filled with a red meat smorgasbord.
During my remarks, I included a survey through American history of great consensus builders - Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Arthur Vandenberg. It was at that very moment that Senator McConnell started to heckle me. Not just interrupt and not just talking out loud. Heckling! By a U.S. Senator? He started yelling "Bullshit" and kept repeating it over and over. He was then joined by the equally charming Senator Phil Gramm of Texas. (At the same time, all the way on the other end of the room sat Senator John McCain of Arizona, who upon hearing that campaign finance reform should be adopted, left the room, and told reporters that "America's top pollster" had recommended it as a major agenda item). Senator McConnell later told a Time reporter that my comments were "Bullshit", which appeared in the magazine.
In any event, Senator Hutcheson apologized to me quietly and later sent a very gracious handwritten note thanking me for traveling to DC and for delivering an "excellent speech under very difficult circumstances." The incident was written up in detail in a book by then Senator (and now Governor) Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, explaining why he became an independent. Chaffee would certainly be on that list of consensus builders if he had been able to crack the nut.
This week's news that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has decided to reverse itself and commit over $600,000 in advertising to Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes' challenge comes as no surprise to me. While she clearly hurt her campaign in recent days by clouding her message, polls show that she is still competitive with Senator McConnell.
At a time when Democrats have to defend several seats where they are running behind, why would they try to knock off the Senator Minority Leader? First, it is because Grimes has a real chance. The incumbent has been around for a while and he has not been able to break away in the polls just yet. Second, if Democrats keep control of the Senate they will need to make a statement to show real momentum. Defeating the would-be Majority Leader would be icing on the cake. Third, if they hold on to the Senate and lose to McConnell they are not hurt. Things stay status quo, which is not really good - but no one really expects anything to change.
Interestingly, Senator McConnell began his career as a moderate. He has been steadfast in protecting small business, extending the (George W.) Bush-era tax cuts, and expanding the reach of the National Security Administration in combating terrorism. He also authored the Paycheck Protection Act that prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who share wage information. When it has come to deal-breaking actions like debt extension and government shutdowns, he has been the man who ultimately has made the deal to avert a crisis. On the other hand, he is apparently not the star of the dinner party.
Kentucky voters are free to do whatever they wish. Senator McConnell's opponent does not really appear to be stellar either. I just thought you would like to hear an interesting story - even one that is almost 14 years old.