Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined me for a long conversation Monday about his new, very entertaining –and important– memoir, The Long Game.
HH: Pleased to welcome now to the Hugh Hewitt Show the leader of the United States Senate, the majority leader, the Honorable Mitch McConnell, senator from Kentucky. Senator McConnell, welcome back, good to have you.
MM: Hugh, glad to be with you.
HH: I did not realize until I read your new memoir, The Long Game, which is really a pretty magnificent book, and I’ll tell people about it as we go through this, that you were so thoroughly a baseball man. I’ve got to tell you that I went to my first Nats game on Sunday, and I saw Strasburg win his ninth in a row, and I saw, you know, walk-off, a Jayson Werth pinch-hit grand slam, and Daniel Murphy’s hitting near .400. They’re a pretty good team to watch, but I thought for sure you’d be a Reds fan.
MM: Well, you know, in Kentucky, we really don’t have a team. In the eastern part of the state, they do follow the Reds. In the western part of the state, they follow St. Louis. I never really warmed up to either one of them, and kind of lost interest in baseball over the years. And then the Lerners bought the Nats from Major League Baseball, and I’ve generally watched them build quite an organization from scratch, including two great drafts in Strasburg and Bryce Harper. And so I’ve become a pretty addicted fan, and I saw a good bit of the game you attended on TV. I’ve got a package down in Louisville where I can watch it when I can. And in Washington, it fits right in. You know, you get home after a long day about 8:30, 9:00 at night, and catch the end of the game and Nats Extra afterwards, and you know exactly what you missed.
HH: Well, I just think it’s terrific that you’re a Nats fan. I also think it was interesting given your title of your memoir, The Long Game, it’s linked over at Hughhewitt.com, that you were a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. I always tell people probably the best interview I’ve ever conducted was with Vin Scully for an entire hour, because it was the most professional interview I’ve ever conducted. He hit every mark, anticipating them with perfect stories. And you grew up listening to Vin Scully.
MM: Yeah, talk about the long game, goodness gracious. Is this his last year, finally?
HH: Yeah, he has said it’s quits. It’s done, and you know, I don’t think he’s going to be talked out of it. And let him go out in glory. He turned down the All-Star Game this summer, but that is the long game.
HH: Let’s get to your Long Game. You’ve been elected to the United States Senate in 1984, 1990, 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2014. In the middle of this memoir, you tell the story of a dinner you held on November 8th, 1997, your 20th anniversary of election of judge of Jefferson County, and after you’d won a third Senate term. And you told people at that big dinner that the celebration wasn’t a retirement dinner, but a halftime celebration. It’s been 19 years more. You’re not near being done, are you, Senator?
MM: No, I don’t think so. I feel like I’m at the top of my game. I appreciate the support I’ve had from my constituents over the years and from my Republican colleagues in the Senate in making me the leader. And now, I get to set the agenda as the majority leader. So I’m certainly not looking at retiring. I think we’ve got an opportunity to begin to move the country in a different direction. And I chose the title The Long Game, because I’m a little skeptical of overnight sensations who have simple answers to complicated problems. I’ve taken a different path from what seems to be fashionable in the era of Obama. You know, Obama was a one-term Senator, and all of a sudden, he’s president of the United States. I think life, for most of us, is a long game, you know, and getting used to the inevitable setbacks that we have along the way, sort of the speed bumps of life, and finding out that rarely are those setbacks fatal, and keeping at it. It’s worked for me, and I think I had an early lesson in that, Hugh, when my mother helped me come back from polio when I was just a little kid.
HH: You know, my wife and I, I was reading parts of The Long Game to my wife. She did not know, I did not know about your bout with polio. She finds that amazing and impressive that nobody knows about that. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak about it. Have you done so on the floor of the Senate ever?
MM: I may have. I don’t remember. I try not to dwell on it, because you know, I did have a normal childhood thanks to her. But it was really an interesting early episode. Actually, my first memory in life, Hugh, was two years after that when we made our last visit to Warm Springs. We happened to be in Alabama at the time. My dad was overseas fighting the Germans, and my mother was living with her sister in a little bitty crossroads that didn’t even have a stoplight in Alabama. And when polio was like the flu, and then when it was over, you had some kind of paralysis. For some people, they’d end up dying. For others, they’d end up in an iron lung. With some of them, some people would completely come back. It affected my left quadriceps in my left leg. And my mother took me over to Warm Springs where the Roosevelts had set up a polio treatment center, and the nurses taught her how to do physical therapy on my leg. And they told her to keep me off my feet. Now imagine a two year old, a normal two year old, is beginning to want to walk. She literally watched me like a hawk for two years, from age two to four, and kept me off my feet, because they told her they were afraid if I tried to walk too soon, I’d end up in a brace for the rest of my life, an enormous commitment on her part. She must have treated it like being a drill sergeant.
HH: But also, not only did it keep you off your feet, but at the same time persuade you that you would walk eventually, but you just weren’t allowed to right then. That’s the double edge of the challenge.
MM: Yeah, well, and imagine, with a youngster that age, a subtle message like that. But after two years of that, as I say in the book, you know, my first memory in life was the last visit to Warm Springs, where the nurses told my mother they thought I’d have a normal childhood. We stopped in a shoe store on the way home and bought a pair of low-top shoes, a kind of indication that I’d be okay, and so I was able to walk without a limp. I was never very good at running, but you know, good enough to get around, and without any problems, and played baseball as a kid and had a normal childhood. And you know, I always felt, Hugh, that that was kind of an early, early, early lesson that if you work hard, really apply yourself, you can get where you’re trying to go.
HH: I think at the end of the book, you write that the only way to fail in America is to quit or die, that these are the lessons your parents gave you. And I underscored that in my notes, so I wanted to get it out early, and I have. But I also want to go back to this question of Mitch McConnell as leader. I am one of the big McConnell fans out there. I know you have some critics in my business, but I started on the radio in ’89. You started in the Senate in ’84, so I’ve been watching you for a long time. I’m hoping you stay in your job, because you’re awfully good at it. And I’m wondering, are you running again in 2020?
MM: Well, I certainly think that’s a good possibility. And as I said, I believe that I’ve been effective on behalf of my constituents and also I believe I still enjoy the confidence of my colleagues. I’ve been elected unanimously every time. And I think we’re making some progress for the country. Nobody knows. One of my great frustrations, Hugh, is that all the presidential candidates out there beating up Congress. You’d think we aren’t doing anything. I can tell you when we weren’t doing anything was under Harry Reid. You know, we didn’t vote.
HH: Oh, we’ll get there.
MM: In all of 2014, the last year of the previous majority, there were 15 roll call votes on amendments all year. They hadn’t passed a budget in four of the five previous years. What I said was if the American people gave us a new majority, we’d open the Senate up, get it back to work. There’s no longer any dysfunction in the Senate. And you know, what are the American people saying when they elected divided government? I think they’re saying we know you have some big differences, and boy, do we with Obama. Obamacare, for example, is a classic example of something we don’t agree on. We put that on his desk. He vetoed it. We thought he would. But there are other things that are important to do for the country that there is some bipartisan support for. Unfortunately, none of that makes any news. And people, I think they teach them in journalism school that only bad news is news, or only conflict is news. But we’ve had a very, very productive year and a half under the new majority. I’ll give you some examples. We put the Keystone Pipeline on his desk. I wish he’d have signed it. He didn’t. We did trade promotion authority so that there can be trade agreements. They don’t always get approved, but there can be trade agreements. We did a major rewrite of elementary and secondary education, the No Child Left Behind Act, which was so unpopular. We did a five year highway bill. You’d think that would be easy. We hadn’t done one longer than two years in twenty years. We did cybersecurity, we did a comprehensive energy bill. We’ve done a major heroin-opioid bill. We’ve done a lot that were things that sort of needed doing, but the Senate was so gridlocked, nothing was happening.
HH: Your colleague, Senator Cotton, took to the floor last week and had some, took the bark off of Harry Reid. Your book, The Long Game, does a little bit of that as well, in particular saying that when Senator Reid “said the war was lost, it was the most insensitive and regrettable thing to come out of Harry’s mouth,” and there’s a long list of those things. What happened to him? He was not, he was not this way when he started. He was a Democrat, but he wasn’t a terrible Democrat.
MM: Well, you know, I don’t have any trouble with partisanship. But I think these low blows, you know, for example, calling President Bush a loser, calling the war in Iraq lost when we had soldiers still fighting…
HH: Saying Mitt Romney hadn’t paid his taxes, and then later saying it worked, didn’t it?
MM: Yeah. Yes, they say, and that Alan Greenspan was a political hack. I mean, whether you’re a fan of Alan Greenspan or not, he’s certainly not a political hack. I don’t, you know, Harry personally is nice. By the way, he likes the Nats, too. Bryce Harper’s from Nevada, so that’s what we generally talk about in the morning when we open the Senate. But I think that kind of bombast, particularly when frequently it’s inaccurate, is not the way that the leader of a party in the Senate ought to act. And so I don’t like the rhetoric, and you know, I always say if a scalpel would work, Harry picks up a meat axe. And I don’t like things like breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate, the so-called nuclear option, which he did two years ago in order to pack the DC Circuit.
HH: Let’s come back to that. I want to make sure we get people the background on The Long Game. They’ve got to read this book. I think it may be the first Senate memoir I’ve ever read that is actually worth reading. I don’t mean to offend anyone out there who’s written another one, but this is more political science and history than it is just first person, though there is a lot of interesting first person in here, Senator McConnell. Let me start with the job. Before you, there was Bill Frist and Trent Lott, and before them was Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and I doubt if anyone’s going to remember Hugh Scott. I barely do. I don’t remember Everett Dirksen. There are so many different kinds of leaders out there that, you’re, everyone reinvents the office. But I think a lot of Republican angst grew up under Senators Lott and Frist, because they were so non-combative. Now “Mitch-slapping” is a term of art, and you do get combative when you want to. But do you agree with my assessment that a lot of the Republican angst in the country is because of the perceived non-combativeness of its leadership in D.C.?
MM: You know, I don’t know. I think some of the upset that people have is related to the fact that they aren’t fully focusing on the fact that there is a president under our system. People need to understand that there’s a limit to what you can do when you don’t have the White House. I think of, for example, the suggestion of some that we shut down the government in order to defund Obamacare, what my friend, George Will, called the politics of futile gesture. In other words, you set up a mission that can’t possibly be achieved. And then when it isn’t achieved, rather than blaming the guy in the White House, blaming people like John Boehner or Paul Ryan or me for being insufficiently committed to the cause. I think people need to remember the presidency is a very, very important position. Most things we do require presidential signature. There’s one thing that doesn’t, and that’s filling a Supreme Court vacancy, which I’m sure we’ll get to at some point here. But we can’t completely change the country and go in a different direction without somebody different in the White House.
HH: I agree with this. The only part of the book I may disagree with you on in tone is on Page 205 when you call Speaker John Boehner “a top notch guy.” Personally, I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy. But in the five years of his speakership, he never appeared on the radio with me. He never kind of engaged. You know, you go out and you fight the public opinion battle. The Dean Martin Republicans don’t fight the public opinion battle, and I think that’s what tore the party asunder and made way for Donald Trump. And by the way, we’ll get to that as well. But my question goes to the sort of balance you have to strike. I think you are combative. You get out there and you fight tooth and nail with these people. But maybe Trent Lott didn’t do so much of that, and certainly Senator Frist, wonderful man that he is, heart surgeon, I know you have a special place in your heart for heart surgeons. I didn’t know you had all the bypass surgery. We have to talk about that as well. But combativeness is part of the job of leadership, isn’t it?
MM: It is. I think you need to do it with class, you know, as a say, with a scalpel, not a meat axe.
MM: And sure, I’m a combatant. Every morning, I make an opening statement in the Senate. I frequently, on a virtually daily basis, point out the shortcomings of this administration, things like how much regular Americans have fallen behind during the Obama years. The average American is about $3,000 dollars a year worse off now than when the president came to office. The over-regulation of our economy, the slow growth, is all producing this frustration and anger out there in the country. We need to, so yeah, I’m a combatant. I try to do it in as skillful and articulate way as possible.
HH: Now there’s a lot on President Obama towards the end of this book. I want to read to people from Page 185. You write, “President Obama is no different in private than in public. He’s like the kid in the class who exerts a hell of a lot of effort in making sure everyone knows he’s the smartest one in the room. He talks down to people whether in a meeting, among colleagues in the White House, or addressing the nation. He’s simply a very liberal guy who’s determined to move the country toward a kind of progressive ideal that Western European societies embraced decades ago. He has a bold, progressive agenda, and if he can’t get what he wants through the legislative branch, he’ll work to do so through the bureaucracy.” In another place, you talk about Speaker Boehner putting the phone down as he drones on. It is not a complimentary portrait of President Obama that emerges in the last third of The Long Game.
MM: Yeah, well, you know, when he’s talking to people like me, he shouldn’t try to characterize how I feel about things. I mean, I know how I feel about things. And I’ve said to him on a couple of occasions, Mr. President, I know what I think. And that’s not exactly what I think.
MM: You know, we’d be better off him not spending any time trying to convince me of things he knows he can’t convince me of, and I don’t spend any time trying to convince him of that, which is why Joe Biden and I were able to actually negotiate three rather significant bipartisan accomplishments during the Obama years. I’m glad the president deputized Biden to do it, because you know, Biden didn’t spend any time trying to convince me of what he knew he couldn’t convince me of, and I didn’t spend any time trying to convince him. So we sort of understood each other’s politics, and we got down to the things that we might be able to agree on, and were able to do that with a two year extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010, the Budget Control Act in August of 2011, and the fiscal cliff deal at the end of the year in 2012, all of those negotiated with Joe Biden. We didn’t waste a minute, Hugh, not a minute, trying to convince each other.
HH: There is a wry observation in here. You quote your dad as saying ask someone what the time is, and they’ll tell you how to make a watch, and that it’s applicable to Joe Biden.
MM: It is, but what I also learned is Joe does like to talk, but when we were in a negotiation, it was different. You know, he didn’t spend a whole lot of time droning on and on. We got to the point and cut out all the falderal, and were actually able to get somewhere.
HH: Let me go back to the polio thing for a minute, Mr. Majority Leader, because we recently had a debate over Zika funding, and the Republicans were characterized as heartless and not in a hurry to fix the Zika epidemic. And as I read your book, I thought to myself, do these people know that Mitch McConnell knows how important it is to get a vaccine for Zika, but that you might object to throwing a billion dollars against the wall and seeing if something stuck?
MM: Well, you’re absolutely right. We’re going to act on Zika, and we’re going to act on Zika quickly. The vaccine is not going to occur overnight. What can occur immediately, and they already have money to start doing this, is we need to engage in major mosquito eradication, short term. That’s the single best thing we can do quickly. But it’s going to take a year and a half or so to develop a vaccine. The money will be there to do that. What we’re trying to avoid is every time there’s an emergency, the Democrats want to plus it up with a whole lot of irrelevant things. For example, Hugh, the original request from the administration had a couple of new buildings in it.
MM: We don’t need new buildings. So we pared those kind of things down, and we’re going to act. The Senate, in fact, has already acted. We’re waiting for the House, and we’ll reach an agreement very quickly here, and apply the funding that we think is appropriate to the effort.
HH: Now I want to go to what I call the big three lessons of The Long Game. I make notes as I go through the things that people need to take away, especially young, ambitious political people. Number one, you can start late, but you can never start too early. Number two, the three most important words in politics are “cash on hand.” That’s on Page 177. And number three, “the single most important word in the English language is ‘focus.'” Take them in any way you want, Senator McConnell.
MM: Well, on focus, early in my career, I befriended a guy who started a major company and became a Fortune 500 company. I watched how effective he was, and he said you know, the single most important word in the English language is focus. Decide what’s important, focus like a laser on that, and push the other stuff aside. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Focus on what’s really important. And I’ve tried to apply that throughout my life with a laser-like focus. I’ve never started late in a campaign, whether it was for the Senate in Kentucky, or for leader in the Senate. There was an old politician named Happy Chandler years ago who said you can start too late, but never too soon.
MM: And so I’ve never been a fan of late starts. Now sometimes, that works. You know, sometimes you can make a late entry, and particularly if you’ve got a whole lot of money and you want to spend it trying to get elected to public office. Sometimes, that works. So early starts and focus, I think, greatly maximize your chances of success.
HH: As does number three, cash on hand. And this brings us to the fact that you’re a First Amendment hawk. And from a Constitutional law professor’s chair, which I’ve been doing for twenty years as well as yammering on the radio, I want to thank you for fighting the good fight, which finally succeeded in Citizens United, even though you’ve suffered a setback, and I’ve got to quote John McCain here, because I wrote that down. John McCain said of you: “There are few things for daunting in politics than the determined opposition of Mitch McConnell, and I hope to avoid the experience more often in the future.” You actually beat him in the end. Has he admitted that to you, yet?
MM: (laughing) Well, you know, we had a great war. You followed it from the classroom.
HH: You bet.
MM: I mean, we had a great war that went on for well over a decade over the First Amendment and what’s permissible in campaign finance legislation. And McCain-Feingold, I actually lost in the Supreme Court thanks to Sandra Day O’Connor. And when Sam Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court shifted on the whole issue of political speech and the First Amendment as it applies to the campaign world. This was, before Scalia’s passing, the best Supreme Court on First Amendment political speech in your’s and my lifetime.
MM: That is all in endangered now.
MM: You have people like Clinton and Sanders running for office saying they’re not even going to appoint a judge, talk about litmus tests, unless they know they’ll overturn Citizens United, which is one of the all-time great cases in campaign finance history, absolutely spectacular case that completely changed the landscape, opened it up to more competition. And you and I both know that in spite of all the demagoguery that’s been thrown at this issue, all it was about was corporate speech.
HH: Right. And it returned it to the Framers’ design.
MM: All it said…
HH: It is back to where the Framers had it.
MM: Yeah. Yeah, all it said was no longer is there a special carve out for corporations that own media outlets to engage in free speech. Any corporation can. All it did was level the playing field between NBC and any old company that wanted to get involved in the political process. So anyway, just another reason, in addition to a whole lot of other areas, that this Supreme Court vacancy is extremely important for the future of the country.
HH: Which brings us to Trump-Clinton. It has been said not by me, but by a lot of people that the only person Hillary can beat is Donald Trump, and the only person that Donald Trump can beat is Hillary Clinton. I know you made peace with Donald Trump as the nominee. Speaker Ryan isn’t there, yet. A lot of people aren’t there, yet. They’re worried. They’re worried primarily about the commander-in-chief authority. His 11 nominee list for the Supreme Court, they’re all good people. Is that reassuring enough for you, Majority Leader McConnell, when it comes to the future of the Court?
MM: I’ll tell you what we ought to be worried about. We ought to be worried about four more years just like the last eight. And that’s what you get with Hillary Clinton, four more years like the last eight There will be no change under Hillary Clinton. And of course, the Supreme Court is the biggest thing the next president will deal with. I made sure of that by making sure that this president doesn’t get to pick this nominee and get them confirmed on the way out the door. But that alone, that issue alone will define much of what America is like for the next generation. That issue alone is enough to convince me to support Donald Trump. And I think the list that he put out was outstanding. And I’m very confident he will appoint the right kind of person to the Supreme Court.
HH: Now you write about, let’s go to the second issue about Donald Trump, though, and it’s about being a commander-in-chief. You write about George W. Bush that he was “astute, decisive, never wavered from his belief, not a great debater.” But then you write on Page 176, “I think George W. Bush was an outstanding wartime president.” I think it was because of his temperament, Leader McConnell. What do you think about Donald Trump as a wartime leader?
MM: Well, he’s a different kind of guy. There’s no question about that, a different kind of guy for a different kind of year. But you know, I think Donald Trump will understand when he’s sworn in the limits of his authority. He’ll have a White House counsel. There will be others who point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do. And it’s not quite like, you know, making a speech before a big audience and entertaining people. And I think he’s a smart guy, and I think he’s going to figure that out. So I’m not worried about it. What I am really worried about, Hugh, is four more years of Obama, which is in effect what we get with Hillary Clinton. I believe that Donald Trump will respond to the basic positions of the Republican Party, and there will be constraints on some of the things that he would like to do that, for example, I don’t, I just don’t agree with. So I’m really not worried about it.
HH: Well, this goes to whether or not the structure of the government, the Constitutional structure, is strong enough to withstand people who wish to overgo their power. And it brings to mind that President Obama has done so repeatedly with executive orders on immigration, on coal rules, on all sorts of things. But he’s been put back by the Supreme Court. That is, I guess you’re saying you have confidence that a President Trump cannot be more authoritarian than a President Obama has been?
MM: Yeah, I mean, the system is bigger than any of us, including the president. And as you point out, no president has pushed the limits more than Barack Obama. And people who are outraged by some of the things that Donald Trump says and are afraid he’s going to push the limits too far ought to look at the current occupant of the White House. I mean, you know, he has done it on virtually every issue. The most conspicuous example would be the immigration executive orders he issues after the 2014 drubbing that his party took in the midterm election, after saying on numerous occasions he didn’t have the authority to do any of that. Now the courts have temporarily stopped that. I hope they’ll permanently stop it. But the courts are there to make sure that we all play by the rules.
HH: Now you are, I would really love to see you and Paul Ryan work with a Republican president, President Trump. I think a lot could get happened. But your majority is in danger. You have Senator Ayotte, Senator Toomey, Senator Portman, Senator Johnson. You’ve got an open seat in Florida. You’ve got maybe Joe Heck okay in Nevada, the Colorado seat may come into play. I put on Senators Ayotte, Toomey and Portman and Johnson in a regular rotation to try and get them attention and money. But what’s your thought about keeping the majority that this book, The Long Game, makes clear you’ve been working to be the leader of for six terms.
MM: Well, it’s a tricky election. It would have been no matter who the nominee for president was. We have 24 seats up. The Democrats only have 10, and you mentioned all of the places where we expect to have tight races – New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nevada and Florida. And therein lies the majority. One of the things that I’m hoping, I and my colleagues have been trying to convince Senator Marco Rubio to run again in Florida. He had indicated he was not going to, but we’re all hoping that he’ll reconsider, because poll data indicates that he is the one who can win for us. He would not only save a terrific senator for the Senate, but help save the majority.
HH: Are you making progress in that regard?
MM: Well, I hope so. We’re all lobbying hard for him to run again. He’s been back in the Senate for six weeks. He’s, I believe, enjoying it, and being effective. Fortunately, Florida has a very late filing deadline, sometime in June, and a late primary in August. And so one of the current candidates in Florida has already indicated he would drop out if Marco decided to run again. So I haven’t given up hope. He hasn’t said yes, yet, but there are an awful lot of us who think that it would not only be good for him and for Florida, but good for the Senate if he ran again.
HH: A lot of people are touting one of your colleagues, I mentioned him earlier, Tom Cotton, as a vice presidential running mate for Donald Trump, who would bring national security chops, experience and combat, youth, vigor, an interesting state for some diversity. What do you make of that idea?
MM: Tom is an outstanding, outstanding Senator, you know, combat veteran of Iraq, very, very smart, and one of number of the Class of ’14 that actually ended up finally making me the majority leader, that have big futures ahead.
HH: You write in The Long Game that you spend 80% of your time with 20% of your members. It’s really one of the funnier parts of The Long Game.
MM: Yeah, the 80/20 rule.
HH: The 80/20 rule. Is Cotton part of the 20? Or is he part of the 80 that you can leave alone for a while?
MM: No, Cotton is part of the 80.
HH: It’s a very funny book. I’ve got to tell you, you must have written this, because I have interviewed you dozens of times, and your voice comes through in here, very wry at points.
MM: Oh, I did. I did. You know, look, the 80/20 rule, in case your viewers don’t…think of men’s ties. The 80/20 rule says that you’ll wear 20% of your ties 80% of the time, and obviously 80% of your ties you will only wear 20% of the time.
MM: The same applies to the Republican Conference. I spend 80% of my time with 20% of my members, you know, the ones who are the hardest to get on board. And the last thing you want, by the way, is for more people in the 80 to go over to the 20, which that makes your challenges ever greater. So the 80/20 rule is just one of life’s rules that applies to a whole lot of things we all do.
HH: Well, you tell the story…it applied to Arlen Specter. Now I supported Arlen Specter, and took a lot of heat for it when he got challenged by Pat Toomey the first time. And then he went and he did the big bounce like Jeffords did on us, and you know, he didn’t talk to you beforehand. Was he afraid you’d talk him out of it?
MM: Oh, look, You know, Arlen started off as a Democrat. I think he, his ambitions were related to getting head and not so much the philosophy. He was frequently not with us. He was certainly one of the 20%.
HH: (laughing) I thought so. I thought so.
MM: He required a lot of attention, and even then, only rarely was helpful. And I think, you know, I told him when he called me up and said he was going to switch to the Democrats, because that was the only way he could win, I said Arlen, this is the only thing you’re ever going to be known for.
MM: And then in one of the great ironies of his life, it didn’t work. He switched to the Democrats and couldn’t win the primary.
HH: He is also remembered for helping confirm Clarence Thomas, his finest hour in the Senate.
MM: It was his finest hour, in my opinion.
HH: And you now have a very fine hour of the Republicans in the Senate holding on no hearings, no votes. And I want to salute you for doing that. I don’t know that any conservatives have given you the credit due you. They love to beat you up, Senator McConnell. I’m sure you know that better than I know it. They love to beat you up on the radio and on television. But here, you’ve pulled off the most disciplined and principled important objective, because if the Court goes, I mean, if Hillary wins, she gets it. But if she doesn’t, the Court has a shot of staying center-right. So my hat is off to you on that. Has anyone written, have your critics noted that very often that you pulled that off?
MM: Well, there have been, you know, it’s been a pretty popular decision with some of my critics, and Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard just the other day had a nice column about it. I think it’s pretty widely accepted that that was the right thing for us to do. Look, I mean, you’ve talked about this a lot, and I know your #nohearingsnovotes advocacy on the air. And you and I are right about this. I mean, you know, to allow this president in the 11th hour on the way out the door to turn to the Court to the left for the next generation was simply not going to happen. And you know, one thing I knew was if the shoe was on the other foot, if this was a Republican president making this nomination in the middle of a presidential year to a Democratic Senate, they wouldn’t confirm him. So, and I knew how it was going to end. You know, there have been 80 years since a vacancy created in a presidential election year was confirmed. You have to go back to Grover Cleveland to find the last time a vacancy created in a presidential election year was confirmed by a Senate of the opposite party. So we knew he wasn’t going to be confirmed. So the question was how do you deal with that? And I thought it was better to make it a matter of principle, which is that we’re in the middle of the election. The next president should make this, should fill this vacancy, and not make it about the person.
HH: And very well done.
MM: And this is also…
HH: The Long Game also gave me some insight as to where you developed some of these principles. I did not know you had worked for the great Laurence Silberman along with Bork and Scalia over at the Office of Legislative Affairs. I clerked on the DC Circuit in ’83 when Scalia and Bork and Silberman were all there. And so you were hanging out with the greatest legal minds the conservative movement had produced.
MM: Yeah, I was afraid to open my mouth.
MM: I sat there quietly in the middle of all that genius. But they were all, yeah, they were all in the department at the same time during the Ford administration when I was down in the Office of Legislative Affairs. And the brilliance every morning at staff meetings, I could observe. It was breathtaking – three of the greatest minds in conservative judicial history. And they were all there at the same department at the same time.
HH: That’s what I love about memoirs, is that you pick up part of the story you never got before. I had known about the bloodhound ads, and I want to go there now, because I want to promise people The Long Game is hilarious. I mean, it actually is very funny how the Roger Ailes made that ad. And if you just touch a little bit on that, we don’t want to give away the whole game to The Long Game, but that is a funny story.
MM: Yeah, well, that was a desperate situation. Roger had agreed to do my campaign. I don’t think he realized what an uphill slog it was going to be. It was July of 1984. We were about four months before the election, and I’m over 30 points behind. We have a strategy meeting in Louisville in my office, and I said “Roger, is this over?” And he said “Well, I can’t recall a campaign this far behind this late that ever won.” But he said it’s not over. And so we kept looking for a needle in a haystack. I was running against a popular two-term Democratic incumbent. And we found that he was, this was back when you could still make speeches for money, honoraria, which I didn’t have any problem with as a matter of principle, that he was missing votes on the floor of the Senate to make speeches for money. So Ailes came up with these ads that had a hunter with a bunch of bloodhounds out looking for Huddleston to get him back to work. And it was humorous, well done. People started paying attention to the campaign. It lit it up. And you know, everything else we had done just had no impact. People were, believe it or not, in 1984, it was morning again in America. Everybody was in a good mood. Nobody wanted to fire anybody. And we had, Ailes came up with a sequel. We actually had a second bloodhound ad where we had an actor that dressed up like the incumbent, Huddleston.
MM: Chased him through the fields, and he actually ended him up a tree. They literally treed him, said “We’ve got you now, Dee Huddleston.” The point I’m making is this was a year so different from the year we’re in now. Everybody was in a good mood. Nobody wanted to fire anybody. And even though Reagan carried 49 out of 50 states, only one Democratic incumbent Senator in the whole country lost that day, the guy I was running against.
HH: Now the sad part is if Ailes made the ad today the way he made it in 1984 when he brought bloodhounds to Congress, all those dogs would be shot. No one can get near Congress. We live in a different world right now.
MM: Exactly (laughing). Yeah, he wouldn’t have been able to get on the Capitol grounds.
HH: No, he just unleashed a dog. With no permit, he went up and filmed it. That’s an amazing story. But there’s a lesson in The Long Game where you start talking about the Fancy Farms Picnic, which began in 1880. I’d never heard of it until, or the Tobacco Festival in Logan County, or the other Catholic picnics in Eastern Jefferson County, or the Sorghum Festival, whatever sorghum is, in Morgan County, or Hillbilly Days in Pikeville. You have to work to win. I mean, you’ve got to work every day. And I think a lot of young people who are used to Twitter don’t get that retail politics is what wins races.
MM: Well, I think it’s still important. It’s still important. Look at how much, of course, Trump hasn’t done this, yet, but look at how much time presidential candidates even spend on building infrastructure. This is actually door to door stuff still today. It’s a long time…
HH: Are you worried that Donald Trump has not done that, Senator McConnell?
MM: Well, the RNC is doing it, and I think that will happen before the general election. But during the primaries? No. I mean, he didn’t, I mean, he won this thing with tweets and rallies, very different.
HH: Very different.
MM: And lots of the other candidates were spending time doing this sort of thing, but…
HH: Tweets, rallies and television, not to mention a lot of radio. He is omnipresent on the media, and he is that combative character that we talked about earlier, kind of Newt on steroids from 2012. He’s really taken it up a notch. But he does have some people worried. We’ll come back to that. I want to stay on the ’84 campaign. Another lesson I took from this, every campaign has high days and low days, and you’ve got to laugh, because President Reagan referred to you as “my good friend, Mitch O’Donnell.” And Vice President Bush referred to you as “Mayor McConnell, the Mayor of Louisville.”
MM: Yeah (laughing)
HH: Those are not good things.
MM: It was just one indignity after another. And it underscored they didn’t know who the hell I was. And so you know, it was one of the bigger surprises in the country that I ended up winning that night. It was not exactly a landslide, about one vote a precinct. But yeah, I mean, you know, it was a tough slog. And a lot of times, life is a tough slog, and I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us that if you just don’t give up, and keep your nose to the grindstone, and keep on working, it’s amazing what sometimes happen, which is of course what my mother did with me in recovering from polio.
HH: Now I want to finish with two subjects. One is Kentucky, and the other is the Senate. I learned a lot about Kentucky in reading The Long Game, and I’d known about Henry Clay, and I’ve known about your great tradition as a border state. But I didn’t know it was 92% white and 7% African-American. And I didn’t know it swung the way that it swings. In the course of your career, you’ve had real tight races, and then you blew out Alison Grimes. I mean, you blew her out after they threw everything at you in a year that was not good for Republicans. Why did it, I mean, you did win the Senate in 2014, but it was supposed to be a tough year. Why did that happen? I was down there about a week before with Carly Fiorina. We did an event together, and you had a good crowd, and you were working, working, working. But no one saw 110 out of 120 counties coming.
MM: Well, I think we ran a good campaign. I mean, I was, by the way, targeted in the primaries for being some kind of Obama enabler by a group called the Senate Conservatives Fund, which in my view, had cost us about 5 Senate seats in 2010 and 2012 by helping to nominate people who couldn’t win in November. They did it in Delaware, they did it in Colorado, they did it in Nevada in 2010. And then in 2012, they did it in Missouri and in Indiana. And so in 2014, I said you know, we’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to nominate people who can actually win the election everywhere. And that guaranteed I got a big primary. But fortunately, we, I think, handled that rather well. I carried 118 out of 120 counties, and won by 30 points. And the guy I was running against was, you know, no slouch. He’s now the governor of Kentucky, came back and got elected the next year. And then in the general, as you indicated, I was the focal point of the left. So in the course of the year we dealt with both the right and the left. What’s the lesson? Good campaigns. Good campaigns like I ran in high school, by getting endorsements from people and the kids in school and knew can affect the outcome.
HH: And it also helps to have wonderful daughters, and Elaine is a wonderful, I didn’t know that Elaine had been the director of the Peace Corps as is my best friend in life, Mark Gearan. I didn’t realize she’d done that. But she’s got to be quite an asset on the campaign trail as well.
HH: Yeah, Elaine is a really good speaker. She’s had a public career herself as Secretary of Labor during the Bush 43 years. And as you indicated, was director of the Peace Corps during Bush 41, part of that time, and a good speaker, enjoys campaigning. People like her, and she would keep her own schedule, and that was a huge, huge help to me as well.
HH: Now what I don’t understand is how you can enjoy, I know you’re a Louisville Cardinal through and through. I didn’t quite get how thoroughly a Louisville Cardinal you were until I read the book, The Long Game. But you’re at every single home game that you can be at, at a cookout. Do people leave you alone and let you enjoy that? Or are you campaigning every day you’re outside Papa John Stadium?
MM: Well, I’m not campaigning, but I don’t try to avoid people, either. Yeah, people come over. They’re generally nice, and I am about the Louisville Cardinals like you are about the Cleveland Browns.
MM: Only we’ve done better than you guys have lately.
HH: (laughing) Well, we picked a Kentucky quarterback. That was….
HH: Oh, God bless Tim Couch. I don’t want to blame it on Couch. It was not his fault.
MM: Yeah, sorry about that. But he went to Kentucky anyway. I love it. I mean, we go out, I’ve got a friend with an RV. I buy season tickets, have 12 season tickets every year, and have some regulars, one of whom goes back to my time in college. And we go out there a couple of hours before the game, go to the game, a couple of hours after the game, make a whole day of it. I rarely miss a home game, and one year, I went to every game, home and away, but one. So yeah, I’m a serious college football fan, particularly the Louisville Cardinals.
HH: You’re also a serious defender of the Senate. A) I want to thank you for including a defense of the Electoral College in The Long Game, which you’re right. We would have Bush V. Gore every year if we didn’t have the Electoral College. I’ve never made that argument before. I always made the argument of diversity and empowering different parts of the country to have a voice because of the Electoral College. We’d never see a president in Kansas if it didn’t have Electoral votes.
MM: Yeah, I mean, there’s been a lot of elections that were close nationwide in terms of popular vote. If you’d, the Electoral College guarantees you have finality in 50 different places. If you didn’t have finality in 50 different places, just look at 2000. We’ve had been freaking out…
HH: Oh, it’s a brilliant argument. I’ve…
MM: We’d have been recounting in every precinct in America? We wouldn’t have been able to finish the recount before the inauguration the next January 20th.
HH: Oh, it’s actually an argument I had never seen before, and I’ve been reading this stuff for years, so my hat is off to you on that. But on the Senate, you obviously like a kind of senator. I used to say my favorite senator was Jon Kyl, and now you’ve got a great leadership team in Cornyn and Thune. And you have the same kind of temperament, that people are not elected to the Senate to get everything they want. They’ve got to be very patient. They’ve got to play the very long game. Is that who’s been coming in? Now I don’t want any fights started here, but nowadays, the kind of campaigns that win are campaigns that can raise a lot of money by direct mail, get a lot of tweets about them, mobilize third party funds, and you write about these faux conservative funds that are a cancer on the Republican Party, as Matt Lewis has done, people who are making money off of campaigns that aren’t actually going to the candidates. Has the nature of the Senate changed because the way you get elected in America has changed?
MM: No. It has had a huge impact in the House, but I think in the Senate, we’ve only got a couple of members, everybody else is what I would call in the constructive caucus. And I think even though we’re in an impatient society, once you get to the Senate, if you’re not comfortable with imperfection, you’re going to have a hard time, because nobody gets exactly what they want. The Senate was constructed in such a way that nothing happens quickly. And so impatience is not rewarded in terms of success in the Senate. Now if you don’t want to stay there, and you just want to use it as a launching pad for president, like President Obama did, that’s fine. Hillary Clinton did the same thing. Basically, she was just going to be there for a while. But I think most senators probably realize they’re not going to be president. And if you want to be successful in the Senate, and accomplish things for the country and for your state, patience and a long game are exactly what you ought to play.
HH: You also write a defense of the Republican Party. We are the party of –I say we, because I am a lifetime Republican– abolitionism, the Homestead Act, land grant universities, women suffrage, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You were very disappointed in Goldwater, though he got you motivated into politics [by him] when he did not support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We are for public infrastructure that’s generally Hamiltonian, like ports and roads and stuff like that. But does the Republican Party have an identity crisis, because Donald Trump said he’s going to change the nature of the party, Senator McConnell? And I don’t know much. If I come around to supporting him, it’ll be because of that Supreme Court, and because he’s going to rebuild the military. But I’m not sure he’s bought into the historical limited government theory. Do you?
MM: Well, whether he has or not, he’s not going to change the Republican Party. You know, we’ve had nominees before who were not deeply into Republican politics and philosophy. Think of Eisenhower, for example. But Trump is not going to change the institution. He’s not going to change the basic philosophy of the party. And I’m comfortable voting for him, because on the big things that I think have the greatest impact on the future of the country. At the top of the list is the Supreme Court, I think he’ll be just fine.
HH: All right, let me close by asking you about John Sherman Cooper. I think I know his grandson pretty well. I think he’s on the Nashville City Council now, John Cooper. You say he was the first truly great man I’d met. What does that mean? What’s a great man?
MM: Well, you know, I was 22 years old, and other than my dad, who I greatly admired, who I think by any objective standard was not to be considered by most people a great man. I just hadn’t been in the presence of anybody of his stature and accomplishment. And so he was a huge role model for me. He ended up having a different path in the Senate. He ran for leader and was defeated by Everett Dirksen. So I don’t know what Cooper’s career would have been like had he become Republican leader in the Senate. He was a highly-independent guy. He was, by any objective standard, a pretty liberal Republican, which I’m certainly not. But I like the way he did the job. I like the integrity, the intelligence. He was an extraordinary influence on my early political life.
HH: Now I want to close by asking you about Democrats. I will note that you come from County Down, as do the Hewitt’s, from Saintfield, and so you ought to be a Democrat. I mean, you’re a Piedmont Ulsterman, and you ought to be a Democrat, but you’re a Republican. But you know Democrats, obviously, and you’ve got a lot of them to vote for you over the years. Of all the Democrats you’ve served with, who have you admired the most on the other side of the aisle?
MM: Well, I think in terms, from a leader point of view, I think George Mitchell, who was a very skillful, articulate Democratic leader, very different from the current Democratic leader in terms of his use of the language and his skill in nailing you in subtle ways. He did a lot to make Bush 41 a one-term president. So Mitchell, I think, was very, very effective. And you know, one of the others would say this, too, but it would be hard not to be impressed with Ted Kennedy, you know, even though…
HH: You occupy his office now. I didn’t know that.
MM: Yeah, you know, even though he was a Kennedy, and you expect all Kennedys to be in the middle of everything, the fact that he decided not to seek the presidency and play the long game in the Senate, ended up carving a niche for himself very different from his brothers, and different from what people expected. So even though we agreed on almost nothing, it would be hard not to…
HH: He sought the presidency in ’76 and failed. Did that change him? That’s before your time, but did that change him?
MM: Well, it was in ’80, actually.
HH: ’80, excuse me.
MM: When he challenged Carter in the primary.
MM: Before me, but you know, for a Kennedy to decide not to seek the presidency again, I felt was an interesting decision. And he ended up devoting himself to the institution and to the causes he believe in. And I think that’s the sort of thing that I personally can identify with.
HH: And a very last question, Chuck Schumer is a deal maker. And so the new Senate, whether, and I hope you return as the majority leader, will have Schumer opposite you, whether you’re majority or minority, and will have Paul Ryan, I don’t know if Nancy Pelosi is going to be around again. Who knows? But could we be on the cusp of an era of getting rid of Obamacare, which you devote some very necessary pages to describing what a disaster it is. And now people are getting premium checks, and the deductibles are going up, and they understand. They can’t see doctors, they can’t get into plans. It’s a collapse. You’re right, the worst bit of legislation ever. Is there, are we on the cusp of an era where we might get some stuff done that needs to be done, as opposed to shuffling papers in meaningless gestures?
MM: It’ll need a president willing to sign Obamacare repeal, and that’s another reason I’m voting for Donald Trump. On the big issue of entitlement eligibility, Trump is not there, yet. I hope he will get there. That’s absolutely essential if we’re going to save the country, both Medicare and Social Security, our most popular entitlement programs, have to be changed in such a way to fit the demographics of America tomorrow, and not the demographics of America in the 30s and the 60s. Those are the mega issues confronting the country, as well as tax reform.
HH: And the DOD being built.
MM: He is going to be, who’s in the White House, not whether Schumer will be cooperative.
HH: But he will get the military rebuilt. I believe him on that. I believe he’ll find the money on that. The filibuster, though, remains in a state of semi-destruction. Are you going to rebuild that? Or are you going to leave it suspended for a Republican president to at least match the number of judges the Dems rammed through when the nuclear option came down?
MM: You know, we, I’m not going to give you a definitive answer on that. But if we had a Republican president, the results of the nuclear option, whether we liked the fact that it was done or not, would help a Republican president fill lots of vacancies in the courts.
HH: Senator McConnell, I’ve taken an hour of your time on a holiday, and it will be airing on Tuesday. The Long Game is a really terrific book. Thanks for spending this much time on it with me, and I’ll see you around town.
MM: Thanks a lot, Hugh, see you later.
HH: Thank you, Senator.
End of interview.