With Congress back in session, I stopped by the sumptuous new Capitol offices of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentuckian who now has the job he yearned for – Republican Senate leader – but not under the circumstances he wanted – he leads the minority.
One of McConnell’s first acts was to replace an oil painting of President Andrew Jackson (Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee had put it there) with one of Sen. Henry Clay, Kentucky’s “Great Compromiser,” who dedicated his life, unsuccessfully in the end, to preventing the United States from being torn to pieces by the issue of slavery.
McConnell is going to need Clay-like diplomatic qualities to keep the GOP together, but the result may still be the same: civil war. This time, the issue is Iraq and, more generally, the Bush Administration’s approach to the “war on terror.”
As the president prepared to speak to the country on his latest plan for his unpopular and costly war, Republican members of Congress generally were looking for cover as fast as they could find it. That is especially true of the 18 Senate Republican incumbents (at last count) who are up for reelection next year. True, George W. Bush will not be on the ballot, but his war policy will.
Just to complete the historical symmetry, McConnell himself is one of those up in 2008 – and the classic Border State of Kentucky is once again in the middle. This time, the divide isn’t Blue and Gray but Red and Blue. The GOP senators who are (and who have been) moving away from the president fastest are those from Blue or Pale Blue states: Gordon Smith of Oregon, Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Those from Deep Red places are safer, and have yet to speak up much.
McConnell in the middle
He literally built the modern Republican Party in Kentucky, starting out three decades ago as the County Judge in Louisville’s Jefferson County. There are signs, however, that the machine is getting creaky. The Republican governor is unpopular; the Louisville congressional seat – in recent years held by McConnell protégé Anne Northup, now belongs to an anti-war magazine editor and Democrat named John Yarmuth.
At a party here last week to celebrate Yarmuth’s swearing in, Kentucky Democrats were talking enthusiastically about mounting a “Ditch Mitch” drive next year. The idea would have sounded more than quixotic even a year ago; now it is worth paying attention to. “We’re going to get him!” declared Matt Barzun, a Louisville entrepreneur who had helped finance Yarmuth’s run.
I got the sense that McConnell is fully aware of the stakes, and the risks. Kentucky Democrats regard him as the ultimate in nastiness – a name-caller whose courtly demeanor hides a limitless political bloodlust. But he is also a cold-eyed realist, and a deft legislator who is not always ideologically predictable.
Seated in his baronial office, the bookshelves still empty, he spoke of the challenges the Republicans – and the president – face. “I’m going to support the president,” he said, “and in the end I think Congress will too, but there are perhaps going to be more questions on the war coming from our side than people think.”
That sounded like a compromiser at work – one whose job has only just begun.