Sen. Mitch McConnell's Political Life, Examined, In 'The Cynic'

Nov 20, 2014
Originally published on November 20, 2014 3:35 pm

When Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) first entered politics in the 1960s, he started out as moderate — pro-abortion rights, pro-union, in support of the civil rights movement. With time, McConnell shifted to the right as the Republican Party shifted.

"I was just really startled by this when I started looking into it," Alec MacGillis tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I knew that he had started out as somewhat more moderate — but I didn't realize just how moderate he really was."

MacGillis's new book The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell traces how McConnell became one of the most powerful politicians in the country — and it examines McConnell's evolution as a politician.

In the 1960s, McConnell was "firmly pro-abortion rights," says MacGillis.

"In his first elected office in Louisville, Ky., as county executive in Louisville, he repeatedly snuffed out anti-abortion bills that were coming through his office — didn't even let them come up for a vote or a hearing," he says.

But in 1984, McConnell barely won his seat in the Senate — by fewer than 5,000 votes.

"There was no question what had happened — that McConnell had won basically on the coattails of Ronald Reagan," MacGillis says. "And McConnell looked at that very, very close result and basically thought to himself, 'You know what? I don't want it to ever be this close again. I see where the Republican Party is heading; I see where my state is heading; I see where the South is heading politically — and I need to get on that train.' "

McConnell, who has been the Senate minority leader since 2007, will become the majority leader when the new term starts in January.

And according to MacGillis, "This is what he's dreamed about since he was a very, very young man ... and now he's about to achieve that dream."


Interview Highlights

On McConnell's political positions when he first entered politics in the 1960s

There was a big battle back in the Republican Party in the '60s between the conservative wing and a still quite strong moderate wing. This is, of course, during the time of Barry Goldwater's 1964 nomination to the party coming from the conservative wing. But there was still a very, very strong moderate contingent of the party and Mitch McConnell was completely on that side of the line.

He was very firmly pro-union. In his first election back in 1977 in Louisville, he got the endorsement of the AFL-CIO because he backed collective bargaining for public employees, which is something even a lot of Democrats today don't support. He sought out the head of the AFL-CIO at the bowling alley in Louisville and sweet-talked him and got his support.

He was very firmly in support of the civil rights movement, which back in Kentucky was not necessarily the obvious thing to do. He, as a student, would show up at civil rights rallies and was very much in favor of the legislation in Washington in the '60s.

On how McConnell embodies the changes in the Republican Party over the past 30 years

McConnell, to me, embodies two things in politics today: One is the transformation of the Republican Party from a party that used to have quite a few moderate and liberal members and Northern liberal Republicans — Midwestern moderate Republicans — into a party that is now much more monolithically conservative and really Southern-dominated.

McConnell really embodies that shift because he himself has evolved with that transformation just to a tee. But at the same time ... he embodies for me the mindset that has become more and more dominant in Washington today ... which is the permanent campaign mindset.

It's the mindset that all that really matters is the next election, the next cycle. It's not so much what you do when you're in power in Washington; it's what you do to position yourself for the next time around, your next re-election, your party's next election cycle. That mindset has become very prevalent. It's bipartisan and it also suffuses the media — but McConnell embodies it really more than anybody else.

On McConnell figuring out how to use the rules of the Senate to benefit his party

He is a master of Senate procedure. That's one of his real strengths. ... He just has studied it very, very closely. [He's] studied how it works ... and figured out how you could use ... [the rules] within this sort of very vague culture-based and nebulous realm of the Senate where these rules are not necessarily written down anywhere — some of them are, but others are just things that have carried over in tradition and culture of the institution. He's figured out how you can use these procedures — and also the customs that have built up over time to really slow things down and gum up the works in ways that hadn't been done before.

On how McConnell lined up support for leadership posts in the Senate

It's something he campaigned for more aggressively than just about anyone before him. His colleagues in the Senate were struck to see just how determined and eager he was to climb the ladder. And what he would do is he would start quite early, several years before the elections for these various leadership posts, he would start strategizing in how to win those elections. He had a wingman, his colleague [former Sen.] Bob Bennett from Utah ... [who] would go out a year or two in advance and start trying to count up votes and feel people out on whether they would support Mitch or someone else. ...

Again, McConnell was not the most naturally popular or beloved person within his caucus, so he really needed help from someone else to kind of go out and line up those votes for him. They would badmouth the opposition and various rivals for various jobs ... really, in a junior high school kind of way — trying to line up support so that when the time came for the elections for the various leadership posts high up the ladder, it suddenly would become clear that McConnell had, in fact, lined up just enough support to get the job.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. With Republicans controlling the Senate, as well as the House starting in January, there's likely to be more showdowns between Congress and President Obama. In fact, one showdown seems imminent. Tonight, the president will announce his plan to take executive action on immigration reform. Mitch McConnell will be leading Senate Republicans in their reactions to Obama, as well as in any legislation they try to pass. McConnell becomes the Senate majority leader in January. He's been the minority leader since 2007.

My guest, Alec MacGillis, is the author of the new book "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell." It's an e-book that will soon be published as a paper book. It traces how McConnell became one of the most powerful politicians in the country and examines his political shift to the right from the moderate wing of the Republican Party, where he positioned himself when he got started in politics in Kentucky. MacGillis is a staff writer for The New Republic. He shared a Pulitzer Prize when he was a reporter at The Washington Post.

Alec MacGillis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with something very basic. Mitch McConnell in January will become the Senate majority leader. What is the power of the Senate majority leader?

ALEC MACGILLIS: The Senate majority leader is in charge of the chamber. He has incredible power within the chamber - decides what to bring to the floor, decides what's going to move forward within the chamber. And it's the position that he's been moving to his entire career. This is what he's dreamed about since he was a very, very young man, you know? A lot of politicians would like to become president. The joke about the Senate is that the Senate is full of 100 men and women who think they can become president. Mitch McConnell was never like that. This is someone who from early on loved this one chamber, this one institution and wanted to become the head of it, and now he's about to achieve that dream.

GROSS: Now, part of your book is how Mitch McConnell seemed to have changed politically from moderate Republican to more conservative Republican. What were some of his more moderate positions when he started in politics?

MACGILLIS: I was just really startled by this when I started looking into it. I knew that he had started out as somewhat more moderate, but I didn't realize just how moderate he really was. There was a big battle back in the Republican Party in the '60s between the conservative wing and a still quite strong moderate wing. This is, of course, during the time of Barry Goldwater's 1964 nomination to the party as coming from the conservative wing, but there was still a very, very strong moderate contention of the party. And Mitch McConnell was completely on that side of the line. Mitch McConnell was back then firmly pro-abortion rights. He as in his first elected office in Louisville, Kentucky, as county executive in Louisville - he repeatedly snuffed out anti-abortion bills that were coming through his office - didn't even let them come out for a vote or a hearing.

He was very firmly pro-union. In his first election back in 1977 in Louisville, he got the endorsement of the AFL-CIO because he backed collective bargaining for public employees, which is something that even a lot of Democrats - they don't support. He sought out the head of the AFL-CIO at the bowling alley in Louisville and sweet talked him and got his support.

He was very firmly in support of the civil rights movement, which back in Kentucky was not necessarily the obvious thing to do. He, as a student, would show up at civil rights rallies and was very much in favor of the legislation in Washington in the '60s. His model back then was a very moderate senator from Kentucky by the name of John Sherman Cooper, a great senator who led the civil rights side in the Republican Party - was against the Vietnam War. This is where Mitch McConnell wound up back then.

GROSS: And in 1976 and 1980, Mitch McConnell did not support Ronald Reagan in his presidential runs. Was Reagan too conservative for McConnell? Were there other reasons?

MACGILLIS: Exactly. Reagan was carrying forward the conservative mantle within the party - within this sort of division in the party that the kind of Goldwater mantle - and that was not where Mitch McConnell was in those years. So in '76 and 1980, he did not support Reagan in the Republican primaries. In 1980, Reagan was his third or fourth choice in the primaries that year, so he was still just completely in that moderate mold. The shift for him then came very soon thereafter and was really quite sudden.

GROSS: The shift in Mitch McConnell's political position?

MACGILLIS: Exactly. Exactly. Where he put himself - where he lined up within the party. There are various markers that you can point to as a signpost in his evolution, but the biggest one really, I would say came in 1984, which is when he was himself elected to the Senate for the first time. And he had a very, very close election in 1984. He won by fewer than 5,000 votes - one vote per precinct against a conservative Southern Democrat who was the incumbent, and just barely won that race, even though he had Roger Ailes at his side - McConnell had Roger Ailes at his side writing some pretty harsh and effective ads. He still just barely won that race.

Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, won Kentucky by 283,000 votes. It was a huge landslide in Kentucky, and there was no question what had happened that McConnell had won basically on the coattails of Ronald Reagan. And McConnell looked at that very, very close, close result and basically thought to himself, you know what? I don't ever want it to be this close again. I see where the Republican Party's heading. I see where my state is heading. I see where the South is heading politically, and I need to get on that train.

GROSS: So what were some of the first positions that he changed?

MACGILLIS: He - on abortion, for instance, he very swiftly switched sides on abortion, found himself voting against funding for abortions in the cases of rape or incest under Medicaid for poor women. He lined up very staunchly behind Reagan on the funding for the Contras against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and campaign finance reform, which is another issue that he had been quite moderate on back in the '70s after the Watergate scandal. McConnell was very staunchly in favor of very aggressive reforms of money in politics. And he very quickly switched sides on that one as well. Pretty much down the line, he just - you just saw him just lining up with the other wing of the party against which he had been arguing for the last 10 or 20 years.

GROSS: He had gained the support of unions in Kentucky by supporting collective bargaining for public employees. Did that position change, too?

MACGILLIS: It did. He actually did not follow through after became elected - after he was elected in that county office in 1977. He did not follow through on his pledge to get public employee collective bargaining in the county government there but...

GROSS: So that was before 1984 that he changed his (inaudible)?

MACGILLIS: ...That was before '84. For me, the other signpost, just before 1984, was that things were starting to change for him was actually in race. He had been, as I said staunchly in favor of the civil rights legislation in the '60s. He had been arguing for the Republican Party to be more inclusive to African-Americans. He - however, as he was preparing to run for that race in 1977, his first big race in Louisville, busing was a big issue in Louisville. And there was a big school segregation order from the courts. It was one of the first big court-ordered desegregations in Louisville, and people were up in arms about that in Louisville - the white Louisvillians. And McConnell is very shrewd. As he was leaving the administration of President Ford, he had a job in Washington in Ford's justice department. And his resignation letter to Ford saying, you know, thanks for having me - I'm leaving. He pleaded with Ford to please start appointing supreme court justices who would be against busing - against court-ordered busing, and sort of came out as an anti-busing person. And it was shrewd because he was basically preparing for his run in Louisville where this had become a big issue, and it was definitely a shift from where he had been before on civil rights matters. For me, it was one of the first signs of the remarkable - just a really remarkable opportunism of Mitch McConnell and the ability to see angles and see where he needed to be in order to win.

GROSS: Why do you call the change of positions opportunism?

MACGILLIS: Because for me, this is what defines Mitch McConnell. And this is one of the things that made me interested in looking at him closer. McConnell, to me, embodies two things in politics today. One is the transformation of the Republican Party from a party that used to have quite a few moderate and even liberal members and Northern liberal Republicans, Mid-westerns moderate Republicans and into a party that is now much monolithically conservative and really Southern-dominated. McConnell really embodies that shift because he himself has just evolved with that transformation just to a T.

But at the same time, he also embodies something else that I - in a way, maybe even more motivated to look at him more closely. He embodies, for me, the mindset that has become more and more dominant in Washington today - in politics in Washington, which is the permanent campaign mindset. It's the mindset that all that really matters is the next election - the next cycle. It's not so much what you do when you're in power in Washington. It's what you do to position yourself for the next time around, your next re-election, your party's next election cycle. And that mindset has become very prevalent. It's bipartisan, and it also suffuses the media. But McConnell embodies it really more than anybody else.

GROSS: More than anybody else?

MACGILLIS: Yes. The way to understand Mitch McConnell is that for him, what matters most and what has mattered most all along is staying in power and rising on the ladder. It's not so much what you do on the way up. This is why it's so hard to point to things that McConnell in his 30 years - he's been in Washington over 30 years. It's very hard to point to issues that he's really attached himself to or causes that he's championed, legislation that he has fought for, other than one issue, which is campaign finance reform, which is telling in its own right because that's an issue that is itself is all about the game. It's all about how elections are conducted. But it's not really an issue about the country or about people or about the economy or defense. It's an issue about the game. And other than that, it's very hard to find things that he had sort of let behind as his legacy.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alec MacGillis. And he's a staff writer for The New Republic, a former Washington Post reporter and now the author of the new e-book "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alec MacGillis, the author of a new book "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell." McConnell will become the Senate majority leader in January. MacGillis's new book is an e-book, but it's going to be published as an actual book? (Laughter). Sometime in the next few weeks, sometime before Mitch McConnell becomes Senate majority leader. Once he was in the Senate, Mitch McConnell's big issue was opposing campaign finance reform. What was the argument or what were the arguments that he used to oppose it?

MACGILLIS: Well, initially, he was quite candid and sort of admirably candid. One of the things that I actually admire about - Mitch McConnell is that - that he can be strikingly candid at moments. And as he started opposing campaign finance reform, he was quite blunt about the fact that he was doing this to help himself and help his party. He realized, pretty early on, that when he was - when he started running for office, that he was not the most natural of candidates. That's actually understatement. He's just not a very natural candidate at all. He's just not - does not have that sort of political charisma, especially the kind of charisma that you associate with politicians from Appalachia or the sort of upland South that he's from, where you have, you know, these politicians who were legendary sort of yarn tellers and just really kind of larger-than-life and fun figures to watch on the stump.

Mitch McConnell never had that. And so he realized that for him to win office, he was going to have to simply - to raise a lot of money and to outspend his opponents so that he could run ads and sort of get his message out that way and attack the other guy that way, and so he would have to raise a lot of money. And in order to do that, he needed to make sure that it was OK to raise a lot of money and that the status quo for campaign finance rules stayed in place or was, if anything, loosened further. And so he was very candid about that. He would say, look, I'm in a state that has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Back in the day, that was the case. Kentucky was, as a Southern state - used to be nominally Democratic. And so he'd say, I'm a lonely Republican here in Kentucky. I need to have a lot of money to fight back against this Democratic machine and against the liberal newspapers who were all against me. And so he was candid at this is why I need to raise money. And this is why I'm going to fight against rules to tighten things up.

GROSS: So Mitch McConnell used the filibuster to try to prevent campaign finance reform. How did he use it?

MACGILLIS: Well, this is when he was still a quite junior senator in the late '80s and early '90s, and he was trying to find his way, make his mark in the Senate - just begin his ascent there. And he discovers the filibuster for the first time as a sort of wonderful tool to gum up the works. The Democrats had a big, quite aggressive campaign finance reform bill that they were pushing. It included some form of public financing of elections, and McConnell really sort of for the first time - it was a kind of a eureka moment for him that he discovered that the filibuster could be used, not in the - just in the traditional way, something that is used only for really big showdowns in the Senate on big issues like civil rights legislation, but that he could use it in much more procedural ways, earlier on in the process to gum up the works. And that's just what he managed to do on this big bill, just sort of snuffed it out before it could get anywhere. And, for him, it was like the discovery of this new weapon that he - as we've seen in the last few years, he was able to use just to incredible and unprecedented effect.

GROSS: Do you credit McConnell as being one of the people who figured out how to use the filibuster in that way?

MACGILLIS: I do. He is - he's a master of Senate procedure. That is one of his real strengths, and it's part and parcel of his just adulation of the institution, of the Senate. That he just has studied it very, very closely, just studied how it works and its - and the innards of the machine and figured out to how you could use, within these sort of very vague culture-based and nebulous realm of the Senate where these rules are not actually necessarily written down anywhere - some of them are but others are just things that have carried over in tradition and culture of the institution. He's figured out how you can use these procedures, then also the customs that have built up over time to really slow things down and gum up the works in ways that hadn't been done before. It's incredibly striking just to see how much this one tool has grown over time, and its use of the filibuster spiked way beyond anything we'd seen before under these last few years when he was leading the minority in the Senate.

GROSS: Are there other tactics that he used to try to block campaign finance reform?

MACGILLIS: Yes. He was very adept at - in how he would frame his opposition to reform. It's of course not the easiest thing to stand up and say, no, I think that we should keep having big money flowing through politics unregulated. I think that's fine. That's not the best way to frame your opposition. So what he would do, very deftly, is that he would - in opposing whatever actual reform was being discussed at the moment, he would offer some other reform that he said he might be able to support, something that wasn't actually up for discussion at the time. But then when that other thing would come up for discussion, a few years later, he would oppose that as well and then would offer yet another possible thing that he might be willing to support.

You saw it starting in the '90s. He opposed reforms to rein in political action committees - said that no, the real problem is soft money, this money that flows through the state parties and the National Party Committees to campaigns. Then when soft money came up for something to be reined in, in the late '90s, John McCain made that his cause. McConnell really made his name then as the person beating back those reforms. He said, you know, let's let the soft money flow, let's let all the money flow. What we really need is disclosure. Let's just make sure that all money that's being given and spent is disclosed so people know where it's coming from. That's just the way - that's the best way to do things.

Well, of course, just a few years ago, there was an attempt to get better disclosure, now that we have post-Citizens United even more of this dark - huge sums of unlimited, dark money that are flowing into our campaigns. And when the Democrats were pushing legislation to deal with that - it was actually called the DISCLOSE Act - to try to get that money out in the open, McConnell led the filibuster to defeat that. And here we are now with more dark money than ever before. The bigger proportion of this last election was dark money - money that we have no idea where it came from, and McConnell's own campaign in Kentucky benefited greatly from this dark money.

GROSS: After the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform was passed in 2003, Mitch McConnell led the move to challenge its constitutionality in court. And it was called McConnell versus the Federal Election Commission. The Supreme Court upheld the law, but that constitutional challenge was kind of echoed in the Citizens United case, which the Supreme Court - in which the Supreme Court struck down a lot of McCain-Feingold.

MACGILLIS: Exactly. He's really - he hasn't just led the fight against campaign finance reform in Congress; he's led it in the courts as well. He was the plaintiff in the first big challenge of McCain-Feingold. He lost that challenge for the most part. And in a pretty remarkable reaction from him, he called it the worst ruling ever by the Supreme Court, which I found jarring given that there's been some pretty bad rulings in the history of the court including, you know, say Dred Scott or Plessy verse Ferguson or the ruling that upheld the internment of Japanese during World War II. There's been some doozies back in our past. But he said that this one was the worst ever.

But, of course, the court, over the last ensuing years, has changed on this subject and has become, in Citizens United and then just this - another ruling just this past year - has greatly loosened the restrictions that this can be chalked up to the changing composition of the court of course. The court has - under John Roberts, has become much friendlier to big money in politics. And that's been a real vindication for McConnell. It's been just a triumph for him that the court has taken up his view of the matter. In a very specific way actually, they've taken up his view of the matter, which is - the key thing in these rulings, these recent rulings, is that they've defined corruption in politics very narrowly. They've defined corruption as an actual case of someone giving money to a politician who does X or Y in response to having gotten that money - basically a bribe.

What they haven't moved away from is the sort of broader definition of corruption of politics, which is just the notion that having all this money flowing into our elections, especially from dark sources, sources that are not disclosed, is simply not healthy for our politics and is corrupting the whole general process. That's what John McCain was arguing back in his push for campaign finance reform. And that's what Mitch McConnell was arguing against, that sort of broader definition. And now the court has taken up his whole view of how we should view corruption in politics.

GROSS: Alec MacGillis will be back in the second half of the show. His new book, "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell," has been published as an e-book. The paperback edition will be published sometime in the next few weeks. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Alec MacGillis, the author of a new book about Mitch McConnell's political career. McConnell becomes the Senate majority leader in January. He's been the minority leader since 2007. He was first elected to the Senate as a Republican from Kentucky in 1984. MacGillis's new book is called "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell." It's been published as an e-book, but will be out in paperback sometime in the next few weeks. MacGillis is a staff writer for The New Republic. Mitch McConnell became Senate minority leader in 2007. Is that a job you campaign for within the Senate?

MACGILLIS: It certainly is. And it's something that he campaigned for more aggressively than just about anybody before him. His colleagues in the Senate were struck to see just how - how determined and eager he was to climb the ladder. And what he would do is that he would start quite early, several years before the elections for these various leadership posts. He would start strategizing in how to win those elections. He had a wing man - his colleague Bob Bennett from Utah would be sort of his wing man who would go out a year or two in advance and start to count up votes and feel people out on whether they would support Mitch or someone else...

GROSS: Votes within the Senate.

MACGILLIS: Within the Senate, and would go out and try and get a sense of where people were, whether they'd be willing to support McConnell because again, McConnell was not the most, you know, naturally sort of popular or beloved person within his caucus. So he really needed help from someone else to kind of go out and line up those votes for him. They would badmouth the opposition - various rivals for various jobs - they would go up to someone and say, did you see this thing that Larry Craig did? He's the former senator from Idaho. I'm sure you didn't like that, did you? Well, you know, Mitch is going to be running for that leadership post, too, so you might want to give him a look. They were very - really in kind of a junior-high-school kind of way trying to line up votes - support so that when the time came for the elections for the various leadership high up the ladder, suddenly it would become clear that McConnell had in fact lined up just enough support to get the job.

GROSS: After Mitch McConnell became the Senate minority leader in 2007, what are some of the techniques he became best known for in terms of procedural maneuvers in the Senate?

MACGILLIS: The big one was the filibuster. One way we have of quantifying just how much the filibuster's used is counting the number of votes for cloture, which is the motion to bring halt to a long debate and actually hold a vote on a matter. The votes for cloture that were necessary to override a filibuster essentially spiked following 2007 when Mitch McConnell took the helm of the Republican minority. There have been - when the Democrats were in the minority early in the decade under President Bush, there had been about 40 cloture votes a year. This spiked to way over 100 under Mitch McConnell.

At the same time, I was struck just in my research to find the other times where he was actually absent from the debate on some really tough issues. He suddenly pulled back. For instance, on immigration in 2007 - remember, there was an initial attempt to push through immigration reform under President Bush. And it came up for a vote in the Senate, and several senators who had tough re-elections ahead of them - Republicans who had tough re-elections ahead of them - who were from states where immigration reform was not popular, they came out in support of this legislation. And Mitch McConnell not only voted against it, but he didn't even speak on the issue on the floor until it became clear that the legislation was going to fail. He - in key moments where his leadership in the Republican caucus was sort of called for, he took a backseat because he was, again, worried about his next election. He was worried about how that issue would play in Kentucky.

Another example that I just came across late in my research that I was struck by was that in 2006, when - just before he assumed the leadership post, when the Republicans were of course - remember in 2006, they were still the majority. And he dearly wanted to hold the majority so that when he became the head of the Republican caucus after that fall 2006 election that he could be the majority leader, not just the minority leader. He went to President Bush at the White House in 2006 privately and said, President, could you please maybe bring home some troops from Iraq, start withdrawing troops from Iraq? Because it would really help us in the midterms. It's not looking good for us, and we could use a boost. And I think that would help us. And the fact that he was willing to go to President Bush and ask him to basically just completely change ways and kind of give up on his biggest priority of his presidential tenure on Iraq all for the sake of the midterm election was to me just another example of how much McConnell prioritizes winning that next cycle.

GROSS: One of the things that Mitch McConnell has had to deal with as Senate minority leader is divisions within his own party between the moderate Republicans and the more far right Tea Party wing. So how has he negotiated that rift?

MACGILLIS: Well, it's been very tricky for him. It's been one of the dominant tasks of his tenure. There's been a couple different levels of it within - behind closed doors. He's had several showdowns with people within the sort of Tea Party contingent, most notably Jim DeMint from South Carolina who's no longer in the Senate now, but was McConnell's real archrival on the right wing of this Republican caucus in the Senate. There were several times where he would call DeMint on the floor sort of and tell him to cut out his antics, that he was only causing trouble for the Republicans.

But outwardly, of course, McConnell was much more tolerant of his more Tea Partyish elements within the Senate because he was very, very worried about losing the support of Tea Party Republicans back home in Kentucky. He was just - again, he was looking ahead to his re-election this year, in 2014, and was just very, very worried that he was going to lose these folks. And you saw it most of all in his just incredibly fascinating and sort of his bizarre relationship with Rand Paul, his fellow senator from Kentucky.

In 2010, Mitch McConnell supported a very establishment, fairly moderate fellow to be the new senator from Kentucky. And that was the moment of Rand Paul's big upset. Rand Paul ran against McConnell and his chosen successor for that seat and beat him quite soundly. And almost instantly, Mitch McConnell reached out to Rand Paul to sort of make up with him and to make sure that this wave of support that Rand Paul had gotten in his primary against Mitch McConnell's chosen candidate that those people would not turn against McConnell as well. The fellow that he had chosen for that seat, a guy by the name of Trey Grayson, quite friendly sort of mild-mannered guy, said that - he told me that McConnell called him up the night of his loss to Rand Paul. And instead of saying, gosh, Trey, I'm really sorry what happened. You know, I wish we could've done more for you. This is just really - this is terrible that you lost. Instead, the message he got from McConnell was, listen, Trey, you need to get on board with Rand Paul really fast. You've got to - I need you to - you need to be out there supporting him, and we need to make this - we need to patch this up. And we're with Rand now. And just so you - just to make sure you know that and you've got to get that message out there.

GROSS: So you can say that makes Mitch McConnell like a great political leader in trying to, you know, bridge different parts of the party and unite it?

MACGILLIS: That's one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is that - and the way I've - what I've come to believe is that he really in some ways, I would say, embedded the rise of the Tea Party. It became a problem that he had to deal with within the Senate. But I also think that he encouraged it in a sense.

Mitch McConnell's whole approach in leading the Republicans these last few years against Barack Obama has, as we now know, has been a very staunch opposition to the point of obstruction. And it was a very devious strategy and shrewd because he realized that if you just - if you just gum up the works completely and slow things down to make it look like Washington is broken and nothing's getting done that the - that that will benefit the redound of the Republicans because the blame will fall on the party in power, the party in the White House. It'll look like they're the ones who are not getting anything done. The Democrats are the party of government, so if the government looks broken, that hurts Democrats. And Barack Obama's whole shtick, his whole message coming to Washington was that he was going to get us beyond those kind of petty squabbles. And so to the extent that you can grind things further to a halt in Washington, it looks like Barack Obama's whole mission is failing and that he's really a deeply - it makes him look like a deeply personal failure.

GROSS: Mitch McConnell's most famous quote is from 2010 when he told a reporter that the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

MACGILLIS: Right, that's his most famous quote. And I would, you know, I would argue as I do in the book that in some sense, that quote is not as - should not be interpreted as shocking and kind of awful as some have made it out to be. It's taken often to be this very ad hominem thing that he was saying, look, I want Barack Obama to fail. I don't want him to become a two-term president. That just seems sort of harsh and very kind of mean.

I would argue that it's actually utterly in keeping with Mitch McConnell's total philosophy of politics pretty much his whole career which is what matters is winning the next cycle. That's what matters. And so if someone asks Mr. McConnell in late 2010 as they're about to win that midterm and get the majority in the House, what's your priority moving forward? He answers, well, our priority, of course, our priority is to win the next time in 2012. And winning in 2012 meant beating Barack Obama and keeping him from being re-elected. That's just the way Mitch McConnell thinks. It wasn't necessarily something against Obama. For him that's just what politics is. Politics is winning the next time.

GROSS: So, you know, in getting back to how McConnell has handled the split within the Republican Party, do you think that opposition to President Obama and filibustering, you know, Democrat bills is one of the few things that all Republicans could agree on?

MACGILLIS: It was. It was a way for him to...

GROSS: I mean, is that what you're suggesting?

MACGILLIS: I am. It was a way for him to unify his team, the disparate parts of his team, to keep everyone together and just say, look, this is what we can agree on, that we're just going to try and block everything they do.

Yet at the same time, that philosophy, that approach also, I would argue, further fueled the conservative wing of the party - the Tea Party wing of the party - because it forced the Democrats to push things through in a partisan way on party-line votes since they weren't getting - since McConnell was making sure that there weren't going to be any Republican votes for something like the health care bill and instead, simply drag things out longer and longer so it would look like things were not getting done and just made everything look kind of broken and bitter. The Democrats ended, of course, having to push that through on this party-line vote. And that - that further then fueled this Tea Party insurgency. All these people saying look - look at these Democrats who are sort of shoving things down the throats of Congress in party-line votes. And it really - it helped to give rise to that wing of the uprising.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alec MacGillis. He writes for The New Republic and is the author of a new book about the political education of Mitch McConnell. It's called "The Cynic." It's an e-book now, but will be published in actual paper sometime in the next few weeks, sometime before Mitch McConnell becomes the Senate majority leader. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're talking about Mitch McConnell who's going to become the Senate majority leader in January. My guest Alec MacGillis is the author of the new book "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell" and MacGillis is a staff writer at The New Republic and a former reporter for The Washington Post.

President Obama and Mitch McConnell have joked about having drinks with each other, which has not to my knowledge happened yet.

MACGILLIS: No.

GROSS: But what have their negotiations been like on legislation? Have there been many talks between them?

MACGILLIS: Well, there were always - in these last few years, there was, even as Mitch McConnell was leading the opposition in making sure that no one on his side strayed to supporting Obama's big initiatives and was very effective at doing that. There were of course, always these moments where, at the very end of the day when things had reached a real crisis point on fiscal matters, when we had that debt ceiling debacle showdown back in the summer of 2011 and then again the fiscal cliff that followed a year later where we were suddenly going to have this massive tax hike and cuts across the board and then also with it, the government shutdown just last year. At the end of the day McConnell would come forward and would help cut the deal that would sort of avert the crisis, which allowed him to, you know, have the sort of mantle of savior, white knight riding in at the end to save the day. The question of course, is why he had allowed it to get that far in the first place. A lot of times he could've headed things off before then but he was worried about doing so because again, he was worried about upsetting the conservative wing within his party.

As far as the personal relations between the two men, I know that President Obama was often frustrated with McConnell's - with just how taciturn he would be. They would have these meetings on various issues, McConnell and John Boehner and some others would come to the White House and it just frustrated Obama so much that McConnell would often sit there and say barely a word.

GROSS: So one of the big issues coming up very soon is that President Obama is expected to issue an executive order on immigration reform. Republicans have threatened that if Obama does that, he will pay a big price. That price might include a move to impeach him. It might include a lawsuit against him and I'm wondering if you have any sense of what Mitch McConnell would support and if you have any sense of whether Mitch McConnell would support impeachment. Now, I know impeachment starts in the House not the Senate, but still, I'm sure he has some sway in what direction things head in.

MACGILLIS: This immigration issue really captures perfectly the bind that McConnell's in. On the one hand, it's an issue that he's been very, very wary of and nervous about. He knows that it's not that popular an issue in Kentucky and so in 2007 he opposed immigration reform under President Bush. He opposed it again when it came up in the Senate just last year. So on the one hand, he's on the record opposing comprehensive immigration reform that includes some kind of amnesty and path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. At the same time, he really does not want to see this issue further flare out the right end of his caucus in the Senate and he's very wary of talk of shutting down the government over the issue, which is really where things could be headed pretty quickly. He saw just how damaging the government shutdown last fall was to his party - although he probably could've done more to head it off back then than he did - and he very much does not want to see his two years now as majority leader veer into yet another showdown. So it's going to be fascinating to see how he grapples with this in the next few months.

GROSS: Alec, you've written this whole book about the political education of Mitch McConnell. Have you met and spoken to him?

MACGILLIS: I unfortunately have not. I made repeated efforts to reach him to get to interview him for the book of course and I was rebuffed in that regard, which I was not so surprised by. He was in a very, you know, hot re-election campaign and they were guarding him very closely, but I was able to speak to just a whole lot of people quite close to him. I spoke to more than 75 people for this book and I do feel like I was able to get a very good sense of the man, despite not having been able to sit down with him.

GROSS: Do you hope to meet him one day?

MACGILLIS: Oh, definitely. You know, one hears that he is in person, can be quite charming in his way. He's got a very dry sense of humor. One person described it as a very sort of English sense of humor, just that incredibly dry, sort of laconic English humor, but no, I would be more than glad to.

GROSS: Your book about Mitch McConnell is about his political life, not his personal life. It's not a sweeping autobiography in that respect, but one thing about his personal life that you mentioned is that he had polio as a boy, which I didn't know about - perhaps other people did - and I'm wondering what you learned about how that affected his life?

MACGILLIS: It clearly did affect his life. I mean, one always has to be careful in not sort of over-reading some of these formative moments, but I think with him it clearly did. He contracted polio when he was 2 years old, had it for two years and it was really quite extraordinary. His mother was alone much of that time. His father was overseas. This is in the final years of World War II and his mother was alone with him, took him to the polio rehabilitation center in Georgia - Warm Springs, Georgia - where of course FDR had gone. They tried to get him help there. They didn't have room to take him in sort of on a permanent basis, but she would go take him back there off and on for check-ups. He of course needed to stay off his feet as much as possible so she would carry him up a flight or two of stairs to their walk-up apartment that they were living in at the time. He was an only-child and this experience probably even intensified his sort of only-child bond with his parents and especially his mother and it really gave him kind of a - I think this steeliness that we see in Mitch McConnell, this kind of intense determination and this intense will to win. He himself has said that it traced back to his having overcome polio.

GROSS: So Mitch McConnell's lifelong dream was to become Senate majority leader. He becomes that in January. So once he has fulfilled the dream of getting there, do you have any sense of what he will want to do with the power that that fulfilled dream comes with?

MACGILLIS: I really don't - and that's the big puzzle about him. I would ask just about everyone I spoke with, I would ask, I'd say what does Mitch McConnell really care about? What's it all for in the end?

And people - including people who know him quite well - really had a hard time answering that question. We're going to find out now what it's all been for, these 30 years of getting to this point. He is someone who is very, very concerned about how history will view him and he must be aware at some level of how little there is to show for his years in the Senate, other than his mere longevity and his having risen to the stature that he has. So there might be some motivation for him to try to get things done in these next couple years so that there's something to be said for him in the history books.

GROSS: Well, Alec MacGillis thank you so much for talking with us.

MACGILLIS: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Alec MacGillis is the author of "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell." It's been published as an e-book and will be out in paperback sometime in the next few weeks. Our interview was recorded yesterday morning.

Coming up, John Powers reviews the book that won the National Book Award for fiction last night. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.