WASHINGTON -- In his Capitol Hill office, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proudly displays an oil painting of his state’s most famous senator, Henry Clay, “The Great Pacificator” and unifying statesman of 19th century America. But as the 72-year-old McConnell prepares to take over as Senate majority leader, a job he’s spent decades plotting to win, it’s not clear whether he can be -- or wants to be -- another Clay.
McConnell has said recently that the past majority leaders he most admires are two Democrats -- Mike Mansfield of Montana, who moved most of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, and George Mitchell of Maine, who was noted for his diplomatic and collegial style.
On Election Day, McConnell staffers referred me to a speech their boss had made in which he vowed to run a more bipartisan and consultative Senate than now exists. He would be Clay, Mansfield and Mitchell all rolled into one.
Many of his critics scoff at the notion. “Mitch is about one thing,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “The accumulation of power.”
McConnell may conclude, however, that he must play the Clay role to consolidate that power.
In philosophy and operating style, the two couldn’t be more different -- at least so far.
Clay was a border-state political diplomat who forged historic deals that held the nation together for decades before slavery and the Civil War tore it apart. He championed an “American system” of federal spending to knit the country together with new roads, canals and other infrastructure. He favored an active role for central government in finance, taxes, banking and tariffs to build the muscles of a continental nation.
If there is a theme to McConnell’s long tenure in the Senate, it’s the contrary: to oppose federal action to deal with domestic social problems, to limit the role of government wherever he can in favor of corporate power, and to feed the fears of those who feel aggrieved by Washington's decisions. On the campaign trail this year, he has vowed to dismantle Obamacare “root and branch,” to unravel environmental regulations on the use of coal and other carbon energy sources, and to curb federal authority over elections, campaign spending, banking and much of the rest of the regulatory state.
But philosophy is just the half of it. Clay was known for his gentle demeanor, his gentlemanly tact and his eagerness to see the world and America from as many sides as possible.
McConnell is personally gruff and aloof, and his syrupy delivery on the Senate floor is often laced with the acid of unremitting partisanship and dismissive scorn for his foes. He makes enemies easily and seems to cherish his resentments. For example, Yarmuth said McConnell refuses to acknowledge him on flights to and from the capital, even though they were once close friends.
Pollster John Zogby recalled an incident years ago when McConnell repeatedly interrupted a polling presentation to the GOP with cries of “Bulls**t!” from the audience. (Zogby’s message, as it happened, was that the Republican Party needed to take a more bipartisan approach to legislating.)
Ironically, McConnell’s partisan ferocity doesn’t impress tea party Republicans, who worked against him in the primary and refused to endorse him. They see him as a fraudulent conservative whose deepest desire is not to pursue an agenda of ideas but merely to defend the establishment he has spent decades trying to control.
McConnell has done his share of bipartisan deals in the Senate, but almost always on his own terms and almost always after he helped create the crisis that he then takes credit for ending.
Now he must keep the peace among potential Republican presidential candidates in the Senate (Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and perhaps Rob Portman), pacify the tea party wing while showing that the GOP is “ready to govern,” deal with the hapless Republican leadership in the House, and even reach out to President Barack Obama, who has reason to be wary.
McConnell has the skill to bridge divides within the GOP in the Senate, and maybe in Congress as a whole. That will be his first challenge. Whether he can speak to the whole country and try to bring Americans together -- and whether he wants to -- will become clear in the months ahead.