“Elections have consequences” is a favorite saying for politicians of all stripes, and for those of us who try to make sense of what they say (or don’t say). But elections also have lessons, and those who learn from them are usually the most successful in politics.
One of America’s most successful politicians, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, often keeps those lessons to himself, but he alluded to one in a recent speech to the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives.
“I think America’s biggest problem right now is a lack of civility,” he said, repeating the last four words for emphasis. He added later, “We need to learn how to behave better, how to be able to disagree without anger.”
Coming just after voters narrowly rejected civility-challenged Gov. Matt Bevin but elected every other Republican on the ballot, it sounded like McConnell was taking a lesson from the people who will render judgment on him next fall – probably in an election with Democrat Amy McGrath, who is running a TV ad that blames him for a national shortage of civility.
McConnell told reporters he wasn’t thinking about Kentucky politics when he identified the nation’s biggest problem. Maybe he just suppressed those thoughts; he has an exquisite sense of self-preservation and takes nothing for granted; he was once fond of saying, “In this business, you meet the same people on the way down that you met on the way up.”
Rather, McConnell said he was thinking about such national episodes as the bitterly contested confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He said in his speech that his theme was crystallized by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote in a recent book that “America has a civility crisis.”
And what of President Trump, the poster child for American political incivility? McConnell told reporters, “We have a civility problem, and I didn’t confine it to just liberals,” who have mounted uncivil attacks on him in public places. “I think it’s across the board.”
McConnell may not have wanted to tie his remark to Kentucky politics, for fear that the wealthy Bevin might once again challenge him for the Republican senatorial nomination. That would likely be pointless for Bevin and expensive for both of them, but potentially more damaging to McConnell.
But surely the senator thinks a lot more often about McGrath, who will probably have enough money to keep pummeling him for the next year, something he has never had to endure.
McGrath’s ad shows photos of McConnell as she says: “Everything that’s wrong in Washington had to start someplace. How did it come to this, that even within our own families, we can’t talk to each other about the leaders of our country anymore without anger and blame? Well, it started with this man, who was elected a lifetime ago, and who has turned Washington into something we all despise ... a place where ideals go to die.”
So high-minded, but so overstated. Incivility didn’t start with the majority leader, and neither did everything wrong in Washington. But McConnell has long used overstatement and exaggeration in his own campaign ads; since his first Senate re-election campaign, he has said that if an opponent threw a pebble at him, he would respond with a boulder.
The State Journal, not given to overstatement of its own, said in an editorial that McConnell is “a practitioner of the politics he decries. His remarks are akin to the pot calling the kettle black.”
To the co-op directors, McConnell tried to differentiate between campaigning and governing: “This is something we all need to be thinking about once again, how to have a respectful debate in this wonderful country of ours without throwing things and getting angry and acting out. So that’s, I think, our biggest national problem, and I intend for what little impact I can have on that, not to act that way. We have plenty of incentive to get angry, but as you may have noticed, I try to stay calm, be respectful and don’t get caught up in these intense debates that we have. The campaigns are always, shall I say, hot salsa – but the governing part doesn’t need to be that way.”
Yes, the public McConnell is usually quite civil, but that is partly because he is taciturn, reining himself in. He doesn’t get drawn into public spats. In private, though, he’s tough and gives no quarter.
As leader of Senate Republicans for the last 12 years, he has helped make the governing process more and more about winning the next round of elections, to keep his party in the majority and himself as its leader. We can expect plenty of hot salsa from him and his foes. Take every dose with grains of salt.
Al Cross, of Frankfort, is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Cross’ column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.