Obama will become a ‘born-again moderate,’ says GOP's McConnell

President Obama will likely become a “born-again moderate” after the November elections, according to the Senate’s top Republican.

In an interview with The Hill this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged that Obama doesn’t call him very often. But he thinks that will be changing soon.

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 “Frankly, I think how much he calls me depends on how much he thinks he needs me,” McConnell said. “I don’t blame him for that. He’s had a huge number [of Democrats] in the House and a big number in the Senate, and I’m sure calling Mitch McConnell is not the first thing on his agenda every day.”

The Kentucky senator who has marshaled unyielding opposition to Obama and Democratic congressional leaders for the past year and a half said he stands ready to work with the White House in the next Congress. He cited common ground with Obama on issues such as trade, nuclear power and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There are things that he is doing, and there are some things that he says he’s for that he’s not yet done that could produce more bipartisan agreement, and if there is a mid-course correction in November, I think the president will become a born-again moderate,” McConnell said.

 McConnell’s remarks reveal his confidence about the midterm elections, though he repeatedly refused to forecast the future.

“What I would hope, for the sake of the country, is that if there is a mid-course correction, the president will give up on his left-of-center agenda and meet us in the middle,” he added.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton noted that Obama and McConnell have a meeting scheduled for Wednesday at the White House, adding they meet on a monthly basis. Burton said, "The president has consistently reached out to Republicans and included many of their ideas in every major piece of legislation he's signed. In fact, he's hoping to get Republican support for some policies they've previously supported in the small business legislation that is currently before the body. The president will continue to work with Republicans without regard to this coming Election Day or any other day on the calendar." For now — three months before the election — McConnell is comfortable attacking Obama and congressional Democrats.

“This is a very, very anti-business administration,” he said, later calling Democrats “naïve” and accusing them of embracing “Washington takeover” policies.

During a 25-minute interview in his minority leader suite, McConnell reveals a small smile here and there — especially when addressing health reform and taxes, issues that he clearly likes to talk about.

Pressed on the ethics controversy surrounding Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and McConnell’s fondness for earmarks, the smile disappears and the answers come in short sentences.

In the 2006 and 2008 cycles, Republicans lost a combined 14 seats in the upper chamber. And when President George W. Bush’s helicopter left the capital on the day President Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, McConnell became the most powerful Republican in Washington, which wasn’t saying much.

Despite the setbacks to his party, McConnell weathered the storm, and he now has an outside chance of becoming majority leader next year, a position the 68-year-old lawmaker has never held.

McConnell won’t predict what the midterms will bring, though he knows the future of the Senate GOP is brighter than it has been in years, especially with 20 Democrats up for reelection in 2012, compared to only 10 GOP senators.

Asked how Republicans would govern compared to when they ran Congress during the George W. Bush administration, McConnell doesn’t answer directly and instead shifts the focus onto Democrats.

McConnell argues that Democrats “want a do-over” of the 2006 and 2008 elections this fall, but “there’s a statute of limitations on how long you can run against President Bush” and that the election will instead be a referendum on the 18 months that Democrats have controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

 Pressed on what Republicans learned from their electoral drubbings of 2006 and 2008, McConnell declines to offer his reflections.

 

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“The voters are interested in what’s happened in the last year and a half,” McConnell said. “They know who’s in charge… It is naïve of our friends on the other side to assume they can run again the ’06 and ’08 elections. This is going to be about the present, not the past.”

 At times, the 111th Congress has been trying for McConnell. His close adviser, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), fell short in his primary bid and Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) publicly ripped McConnell for pushing him into retirement. McConnell’s handpicked successor to Bunning lost to Tea Party favorite Rand Paul.

McConnell is not a backslapping politician, but he is respected by GOP senators.

They say he retains their loyalty because of his clearheadedness, his attention to detail and his work ethic.

“I’m not sure anyone else could command the solidarity that Mitch has been able to,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). “It’s not a pound-the-table style. It’s a softer approach, but it’s very well-reasoned and thought-through.”



Republicans also point to McConnell’s encyclopedic knowledge of Senate rules and procedures — Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) calls him “a modern-day master of the Senate.”

That mastery has been put to the test often during this Congress, as McConnell has had an uneven record of blocking the Democratic agenda. A few Republicans backed the stimulus package as well as Wall Street reform.

On healthcare and campaign finance reform, however, there was not one GOP defection.

And on issues ranging from unemployment benefits to energy to small-business incentives, McConnell has maintained a united Republican front.

“[Senate Republicans are] making it difficult to do the wrong thing,” he said. “Even though some voters say, ‘Why can’t you guys all get along?’ I think the question is, ‘Get along and do what?’ ”

He says he never takes defections personally, adding, “The most important vote is the next vote.”

Centrist Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said McConnell has never criticized her votes and that he is pragmatic enough to take the broader view.

“His interest is in having more Republican seats, and he knows that the state of Maine or the commonwealth of Massachusetts is very different than Kentucky,” Collins said. “He knows I’m with him more times than not.”

Conservative activists such as Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said McConnell’s success is based on using such pragmatics in developing relationships with each Republican.

“He’s not a Tom DeLay. He’s not a ‘Hammer,’ ” Norquist said, referring to the former House majority leader.

“The idea that you can tell Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe what to do is silly. What he does is build a coalition of the willing.”

McConnell stressed he is willing to work with the White House, noting that President Clinton moved to the center after the 1994 elections.

Clinton went on to pass welfare reform, balance the federal budget and implement a trade deal — all Republican ideas, McConnell said.

“As we all know, there’s some precedent. President Clinton started out pretty far on the left, and there was a mid-course correction,” a smiling McConnell said.