Bio paints McConnell’s relentless pursuit of power

It wasn’t planned this way, but there could hardly be a better time to review Republican Leader, the revealing new biography of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

It’s not only the week that McConnell’s cranky junior colleague from Kentucky, Republican Jim Bunning, announced he won’t run for reelection — much to McConnell’s relief — it’s also the time McConnell is demonstrating the thesis of this book: that he is a key figure in rebuilding the Republican Party after its disappointing last two elections.

As author John David Dyche, a Louisville lawyer and political commentator, writes in this sympathetic but well-researched and workmanlike book, McConnell offered his vision of leadership when he was elected minority leader in November 2006, after Democrats regained control of the Senate for the first time in 12 years — and the House as well — by picking up six seats to gain a 51-49 majority.

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“Upon assuming his new post … McConnell reminded his colleagues of the minority’s significant power under the Senate’s rules. The day after his elevation, he told radio host Hugh Hewitt, ‘It takes sixty votes to do just about everything in the Senate. Forty-nine is a robust minority. Nothing will leave the Senate that doesn’t have our imprint. We’ll either stop it if we think it’s bad for America, or shape it, hopefully right of center.’ ”

That’s pretty much how McConnell, who is every bit as much a master of Senate rules as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has operated since his dream of becoming majority leader was frustrated by voters’ disenchantment with President George W. Bush in 2006 and with GOP standard-bearer Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.

And now the 62-year-old Alabama native is positioned to be a central figure in reshaping the Republican Party in the coming years. Indeed, Dyche begins his book by agreeing with columnist George Will’s judgment that McConnell is “Washington’s most important Republican and second-most consequential elected official.”

But Dyche contends that “many Americans still know little about this skilled and powerful politician,” a condition the author says he hopes to remedy “by recounting the political career of the man in whom conservatives have invested their hopes of holding off the worst excesses of triumphant liberalism while the Right attempts to regroup.”

Dyche achieves his goal by carefully examining McConnell’s relentless pursuit of power, which took him from a political activist at the University of Louisville to a job in the Nixon administration’s attorney general’s office to his first elective post as a Jefferson County judge in 1976 to the top echelon of the U.S. Senate. In 2008 McConnell became the longest-serving politician in Kentucky history by winning a fifth Senate term.

Dyche’s book is replete, sometimes to the point of numbing repetition, with examples of McConnell’s ferocious ambition, hard-nosed campaign tactics, fealty to Kentucky’s tobacco industry and unparalleled ability to raise campaign funds, even while presenting himself as an advocate of campaign finance reform. For example, his race for Jefferson County judge was the most expensive in Louisville history, while he raised almost $20 million in his 2008 reelection campaign.

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But Dyche may have overreached a bit by proclaiming McConnell “the foremost Republican in Kentucky history,” a greater figure than his mentor, Sen. John Sherman Cooper; Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the only dissenter from the infamous Dred Scott decision; and even the sainted Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln.

The book may be more revealing than McConnell intended when he agreed to cooperate with Dyche. The result is a portrait of a coldly calculating, less-than-likable politician who has feuded with colleagues in Kentucky and Washington, including the aforementioned Bunning, the Hall-of-Famer who threw a verbal knockdown pitch at McConnell for his refusal to help him raise funds for his reelection.

In short, Mitch McConnell is indeed one of the most powerful Republicans in the Obama era, but not the kind of guy you’d like to drink mint juleps with while watching the Kentucky Derby.