Mitch McConnell embraces his dark side


Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnel’s “enemies have given him more personality than he’s given himself,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “And he’s smart enough to play the game.” | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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The Senate majority leader is relishing his turn as villain to the left.

Call him “Cocaine Mitch,” “Nuclear Mitch” or the steward of the “legislative graveyard.” Mitch McConnell says he’s the “Grim Reaper” anyway, so he’s loving every minute of it.

While his critics have tried to make the Kentucky Republican public enemy No. 1, the Senate GOP leader has embraced the demonization in a bid to protect his Senate majority, his own seat and his title as longest serving Senate GOP leader in U.S. history.

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“We need to have a little fun in this business,” McConnell said in a brief interview. “I used to call myself Darth Vader when I was back in the campaign finance wars.”

McConnell’s recasting as a cartoon villain to the left is a dramatic transformation from the tight-lipped, low-key Republican leader who was once the scourge of conservatives and even, at times, President Donald Trump.

But McConnell has renovated his reputation on the right with his blunt exercise of power — confirming two Supreme Court justices and dismantling portions of the filibuster while developing a knack for driving his Democratic and GOP opponents mad.

Now he’s portrayed by House Democrats as the worst thing about Congress — a “coward,” according to Rep. Max Rose of New York — and by Senate Democrats as a destructive force hellbent on changing the Senate forever. It’s a stark contrast to the public persona of caution, deliberation and risk aversion he’s long maintained.

“His enemies have given him more personality than he’s given himself,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “And he’s smart enough to play the game.”

McConnell’s colleagues, who cite his sense of humor in private, may not be surprised by the turn. Most members of Congress don’t run for reelection as the opposition party’s biggest foe, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.

The move is likely to help McConnell ward off the kind of conservative primary challenge he’s faced in the past. And it fits neatly with the national strategy he’s helped devise for his party heading into 2020, presenting the GOP as a bulwark against socialism even as Senate Republicans appear to have no real legislative agenda.

So when he hears liberals complain about him killing their priorities on health care, the environment and gun control, McConnell can’t help but crack a smile.

“I appreciate they’ve picked up on what I call myself, which is the Grim Reaper when it comes to things like the ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘Medicare for None,’” McConnell said. “I appreciate the attention.”

To Democrats, it’s no laughing matter.

“No one should be proud of being the Grim Reaper of middle-class legislation that Americans desperately need,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading a bicameral messaging war against McConnell as running a “legislative graveyard.”

It doesn’t appear to be getting under his skin. McConnell has no plans to take up most legislation from the House and has instructed his own committee chairmen to devise bipartisan bills, though it’s unclear when or if they would come to the floor. Amid the criticism, the Senate is sticking to its streamlined schedule, coming in on Monday evenings, often voting on a few judicial nominations until the weekend starts on Thursday afternoon.

In his offices, the GOP leader keeps a full wall of political cartoons, many unflattering, and associates said he occasionally asks the cartoonist to sign them. Aides track how many prominent political cartoons have been run about him: 592, with 16 just this year.

McConnell doesn’t even seem to care about being compared to a turtle, according to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a suggestion that was most recently made in a “Saturday Night Live” skit that showed a McConnell impersonator snapping his teeth on a piece of lettuce. McConnell watched the skit, which depicted him as supporting Trump through anything, and “loved it,” an aide said.

“He seems to embrace it. He’s a savvy, shrewd and effective guy. I just think he lets it run off his back like water on a duck,” Cornyn said.

Ever since West Virginia Republican Don Blankenship slammed him as “Cocaine Mitch,” citing reports that drugs were found in a ship owned by McConnell’s father-in-law’s shipping company, McConnell has occasionally answered the phone as “Cocaine Mitch.”

Aides say he is sometimes called that by passersby at the airport, and his campaign recently started selling T-shirts based on the attack. The nickname has become a rallying cry among some activists on the right who view McConnell as a folk hero — a status that appeared unlikely six years ago when he faced a serious conservative primary challenge — and which still surprises some colleagues.

“He calls himself that? It’s good if he can laugh about it, whatever it is,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “The fact is, he has changed the Senate in ways that I think may never be the same.”

Durbin has dubbed McConnell “Nuclear Mitch” for leading Republicans to unilaterally change the Senate rules to speed Trump’s nominees this year, a move that came after McConnell triggered the “nuclear option” to kill the filibuster on Supreme Court confirmations. But McConnell doesn’t seem to mind that one either, associates say. And McConnell’s self-proclaimed status as the Grim Reaper of Democratic priorities is arguably an even darker moniker than Democrats’ claims that he runs a “legislative graveyard.”

The gridlock fueled by McConnell has Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) considering, yet again, whether to leave Capitol Hill and run for governor.

“It can be very unpleasant at times,” Manchin said. “‘I’m stopping everything that’s good for this country’ is what [McConnell] should run [on]. Because that’s what he does.”

For all his hardball tactics, McConnell has a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, according to senators and aides. He believes that fighting public perceptions and insults of him would only give his enemies what they desire, so he subsumes them instead.

“Most politicians are pretty insecure. He’s obviously very secure,” said Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, one of the newest GOP senators. “There’s no better way to deflect an insult than to embrace it.”

Yet McConnell also sees a real utility in all of it. If the GOP leader is seen as the guy on the front lines beating back the left, there’s almost no downside unless he somehow he finds himself in a competitive general election.

For now, that appears unlikely. And McConnell is predicting his blockade of liberal legislation will help keep him as Senate majority leader come 2021, regardless of what happens in the presidential race.

Democrats’ health care and climate change agenda is “not going to pass the Senate,” McConnell said. “And it won’t pass the Senate after we retain our majority in 2020.”

Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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