McCain and McConnell battles helped define McConnell’s role in the Senate

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Guest columnist

As America said farewell to John McCain this past weekend, many Kentuckians viewed him through the career of their own senior senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They spent much of their Senate careers at odds on big issues, and their battles helped McConnell get where he is today and shaped his leadership style.

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“John and I stood shoulder to shoulder on some of the most important issues to each of us. And we also disagreed entirely on huge subjects that helped define each of our careers,” McConnell said in a floor speech last Monday.

When McCain went from the House to the Senate in 1986, he drew offices across from those McConnell had occupied for two years. Their staffs formed “McTeam” in a softball league, and their names were together in the Senate roll call for 20 years. But they were very much un-together on some major issues.

After McCain was embarrassed in the Keating Five influence-peddling scandal, he recast himself as a reformer – campaigning against earmarks in appropriations bills and offering, with Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a series of bills to reform the campaign-finance system.

McConnell, representing a relatively small state, was a fan of earmarks. But more importantly, he volunteered to lead opposition to campaign reform. That led to angry exchanges with McCain, including one in which he repeatedly challenged McCain to name a senator who had been corrupted. Ultimately, without naming McConnell, McCain cited an anti-smoking bill he had sponsored, and dredged up a reported McConnell quote from a meeting of GOP senators: “A certain senator said it was OK for you not to vote for the tobacco bill because the tobacco companies would run ads in our favor.”

McConnell told me Wednesday, “I was looking out for my home-state interests.”

McCain finally won passage of campaign reform in 2002, and that was a triple disappointment for McConnell; President George W. Bush signed the bill instead of vetoing it, and in 2009 the Supreme Court largely upheld it, ending a suit in which McConnell was lead plaintiff. But in 2010, the court’s ruling in the Citizens United case (in which they both filed briefs) made McConnell the ultimate victor.

Even before that, McConnell had won in another way. Republican senators appreciated his willingness to be their point man on a very touchy issue. That, in addition to his mastery of Senate rules and relationships, were key factors in their election of him as party leader in 2006.

One of McConnell’s big early tests as leader was the 2007 immigration-reform bill that was identified with McCain and favored by about half of Republican senators. He had called the bill better than one he supported in 2006, but with his caucus deeply split, Kentuckians flooding his office with objections to “amnesty,” and one eye cocked toward re-election in 2008, McConnell took a powder during debate on the bill and voted to kill it once the roll call showed it was going to die. “It wasn’t the people’s will,” he explained then. And the issue divides us yet today.

In the club that is the Senate, issues come and go, and relationships last. As foes, McCain and McConnell developed mutual respect. In 2002, when the campaign bill passed, McCain said in a speech, “There are few things more daunting in politics than the determined opposition of Mitch McConnell.” Much the same could have been said of McCain, and each admired the other’s tenacity.

In 2009, when McConnell lost the court case, he called McCain to congratulate him.

“He conceded that we both enjoyed the fight, and the relationship began to warm up again, to the point where John and I would go out to dinner frequently, just the two of us.”

He last saw McCain at the senator’s Arizona ranch in May.

“It was an emotional time,” he said. “I told him I loved him, and he said he loved me, too, and we had a chance to say goodbye.”

That doesn’t fit McConnell’s dour, all-business public image, but the two had embraced when McCain returned to the Senate last year, to vote on repealing Obamacare. Despite pleas from McConnell, McCain cast the “no” vote that was McConnell’s biggest defeat as leader and made him briefly a target of President Trump.

Asked to explain how he and McCain could be still friends after being diametrically opposed on big issues, McConnell said, “It’s not personal. People think there’s a lack of collegiality here in the Senate. There isn’t.”

Some Democrats might disagree. McConnell (with his predecessor as majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid) has made the Senate a more partisan place. McCain’s last big speech was a call for bipartisanship, but his voting record was more partisan than you might think. Still, with him gone, partisanship seems likelier to persist.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.