Who would have guessed that the Republican leader of the Senate would be calling for the return of Bill Clinton? That's what Mitch McConnell of Kentucky did Thursday when talking about the political evolution he expects from Barack Obama. The midterm election is likely to shrink (and perhaps erase) the Democratic majorities in Congress. McConnell, who voted guilty on both of Clinton's impeachment charges, held him up as a model for the way a president can come back after his party loses a congressional election. Clinton's declaration after the 1994 GOP victory that "the era of big government is over," said McConnell, "showed an incredible amount of flexibility."
A chastened president who works with an emboldened opposition: That's just one of the post-election fantasies being shopped to voters. McConnell was pushing that narrative in response to another one in which he's an unblinking fanatic. For months, Democrats have been trying to argue that the GOP is indistinguishable from the Tea Party. In a recent ad, McConnell is included in a collage with Rand Paul, the Tea Party favorite who hopes to become the other Kentucky senator.
In the DNC ad McConnell looks as if he has a sour stomach, and the music is menacing. At a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, McConnell was chipper and singing a happy tune of cooperation. He argued that if more Republicans are elected to the Senate, it will create bipartisan compromise legislation, because neither party will have a large enough majority. "If you're between 55 and 45 you get genuine bipartisan agreement. I hope what we're going to have is more balance, which will give us opportunities together that were missing when you have [the current] disparity." But balance only goes so far. McConnell continued, "I'm not going to be very interested in doing things left of center. It's going to have to be center-right, and I think the president is a flexible man and I'm hoping he'll become a born-again moderate."
McConnell made it sound as if the president's conversion might have started with his private meeting with him Wednesday. It was their first since Obama has taken office. The two men agreed not to talk about the details, but McConnell described the meeting as if Obama were already preparing the way for a post-election Clinton-like accommodation with the opposition. Asked why he thought Obama invited him, McConnell said, "The election is not tomorrow, but most people feel there is going to be a mid-course correction, and the president is a very smart guy, and he figures he's going to be seeing a lot more of me in the future, and I enjoyed our discussion and I look forward to seeing more of him."*
Throughout the hour, it became clear just how much McConnell is the anti-Rand Paul. Senate candidate Paul is regularly driving his campaign off-message. McConnell passed up every opportunity to weigh in on red-meat topics. He stayed focused on the economy, the issue voters say they care most about.
McConnell was asked twice about the judge's ruling overturning Proposition 8. He could have talked about activist judges, a favorite conservative punching bag. The judge in this case is from San Francisco, a city that in some conservative circles is an epithet. In 2004 a ruling on same-sex marriage from the Massachusetts Supreme Court inspired president George Bush to call for a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage. McConnell, though, just said he thought voters would be more worried about the economy.
What about the Islamic center being planned near Ground Zero in New York? Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are exercised about it. William Kristol is, too. When asked about it, McConnell said it was a local issue. Next question.
McConnell won't jump on the red-meat issues, because he wants voters to look to the GOP congressional leaders and see them focused on the issue they care about the most—the economy—and he knows that the GOP base, which might be excited by hot rhetoric on these sideline issues, is already energized enough in this election.
Finally, McConnell was also disciplined enough to stay vague about what the GOP will actually do if it gets more power. Why get specific now and give Democrats items they can attack? Republicans would like to make this election a referendum on the current president. I asked McConnell how the policies the Republicans are putting forward now would be different than George Bush's policies. Democrats say they'll be identical. "The Bush administration ended two years ago. We're moving forward, not reliving the past," he said before promising that the GOP would be offering an agenda in late September. The hope is that unveiling an agenda that late will show that the GOP has ideas but won't expose them to too much scrutiny. If Barack Obama is going to meet Republicans halfway after the election he's going to have to wait almost that long to find out where he's supposed to go.
Correction, Aug. 6, 2010: This quote originally omitted the phrase "of me," thus misquoting McConnell as saying, "[H]e figures he's going to be seeing a lot more in the future." ( Return to the corrected quote.)