The Refreshing Candor of Mitch McConnell

He may be cold-blooded, but the new Senate Majority Leader may be exactly what the Senate needs.

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U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), and Senate Minority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), at the Capitol on Dec. 9, 2014.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mitch McConnell is refreshingly candid about politics sometimes. While some politicians billow to make their political moves seem high-minded, Sen. McConnell is blunt. Senators who have worked with him (and those who have failed to do so) describe a transactional clarity. You have not done this for me and so I will not do that for you and vice versa.  

It was in that spirit of transparency that the incoming majority leader described his support for fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential run on Wednesday morning. “Obviously I’m going to support someone from my own state, everyone understands that.” 

McConnell didn’t wax on about Paul’s fresh vision for America or his penetrating ideas. He singled out that they are both from the same state. Like nearly all senators who have been in that position before, McConnell is standing by the hometown candidate, should he choose to run. When asked to elaborate on the junior Kentucky senator, McConnell highlighted Paul’s political outreach to blacks and younger voters, which he sees as a way to grow the Republican Party. McConnell didn’t endorse the efforts, but said, “… we’re all watching with great interest to see if this is successful.” The somewhat arid endorsement might result from the fact that Paul has very little of the executive or legislative experience that McConnell has previously said was important to be president, and which he believes makes Barack Obama self-evidently unequipped for the top job.

In its current condition, McConnell’s endorsement isn’t likely to carry much weight, but then McConnell knows that endorsements don’t carry much weight anyway. Though that’s not exactly the way Paul’s strategist Jesse Benton put it in 2013 when asked why he was working for McConnell. Benton told a conservative Iowa activist that he was “sort of holding my nose for two years because what we’re doing here is going to be a big benefit to Rand in ’16, so that’s my long vision.” McConnell understands that type of political pragmatism and may not even resent Benton for saying it. He was speaking his language. Plus Benton, who had helped Paul win his Senate seat in 2010, helped McConnell get past a primary challenge and win the general election.

The thing to watch between McConnell and Paul is the favors the new majority leader does for him in the Senate. We know he’s not inclined to do favors for Paul’s likely opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz, who has promoted himself at the expense of establishment Republican leaders in the Senate. Cruz bucked McConnell on the strategy that led to the government shutdown, which McConnell referred to Wednesday as “a foolish tactic that had no chance for success.”

McConnell will be fascinating to watch as leader of the Senate because of his brand of candor. It is in part why Vice President Joe Biden has been able to work with him in crafting a variety of budget deals. Perhaps that will help with negotiations on trade, tax reform, and infrastructure, the areas of common interest that the White House and Senate Republicans have both highlighted. Though McConnell expects there to be differences even on those areas of possible agreement, they might be hammered out after the president vetoes the first Republican offering.

McConnell is both traditional and cold-blooded. When asked which Senate majority leaders he would model himself on, he wouldn’t pick favorites among Republicans, but praised Democratic Senate leader Mike Mansfield, because he treated Republicans fairly—sometimes putting Republican amendments ahead of Democratic ones. If he makes good on his promise to allow open debate and more amendments than outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid, the deliberative body will be a more interesting place. But it won’t be less partisan. McConnell also hopes to reinvigorate the Congressional power of the purse as a weapon to roll back the Obama agenda. He also praised Democratic leader George Mitchell because “he was pretty skillful at sticking the knife in and you hardly noticing it.”