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Author: Mitch McConnell's Focus On Winning Is 'Single-Minded'


Gridlock has become synonymous with Washington politics. So when Republican Senator Mitch McConnell takes on his dream job as Senate majority leader in a few days, he may have a few obstacles to face. Here's Mitch McConnell just after the GOP's big victory in the midterm elections on the potential for compromise with President Obama.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: We're going to function. We are. We're going to pass legislation; some of it, he may not like. But we're going to function.

WESTERVELT: Political reporter Alec MacGillis is here to help us get a better understanding of Kentucky's longest-serving senator and his challenges ahead leading the Senate. MacGillis is author of "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell." He says McConnell is not your typical southern senator.

ALEC MACGILLIS: He's just not a natural politician, certainly not the kind of politician that usually does well in the Upland South, where he's from. That part of the country produces real sort of storytellers. And he's just not that type it all.

He has done it by being incredibly single-minded about winning elections and just focusing on winning elections above everything else, really. He's also been incredibly good at raising money so he's made that his main issue in Washington; maintaining the status quo when it comes to campaign finance report and fighting against any new restrictions in that area.

WESTERVELT: Many Americans look at Washington and see gridlock and dysfunction. From what you know of Senator McConnell, I mean, what are the prospects of the new majority leader and President Obama actually finding common ground, working together constructively and compromising to get things done?

MACGILLIS: His central sort of strategy these last couple years - his central insight, which was a very shrewd and you might say cynical insight, was that if he could really bog things down in Washington, that would hurt the Democrats and President Obama more even if it was McConnell and the Republicans who were doing most of the obstructing and bogging down.

So that was just his insight. That if he could bog things down, it'll help the Republicans in the midterm elections. And that happened both in 2010 and then just now in 2014. The question now looking forward is whether he changes that calculus. When he looks ahead to 2016, does he think that the Republicans actually need to change tax and start actually trying to get some things past, that maybe the obstruction is no longer more politically shrewd strategy for the next election. That maybe he feels like they actually have to get some stuff done.

WESTERVELT: What if some of the more conservative Tea Party members of his own party want to continue to push the obstructionist path? I mean, what's his relationship like with the GOP Senators he'll be leading?

MACGILLIS: It's a very fraught relationship, and it's something he's had to wrestle with these last couple years - senators like Ted Cruz and, before him, Jim DeMint. In a way, though, he was very adept at using those senators, that sort of far right wing of his caucus, to his advantage. He could point to these folks and say, in his negotiations with the White House on the various fiscal cliffs and debt ceiling crises that we faced, he could point to them and say, look, if you don't give me what we want, you better watch out because these guys here really could take us over the cliff.

Now that he's actually the majority leader, he feels somewhat more responsibility for maintaining a certain, you know, sense of order and government functioning.

WESTERVELT: After a recent dust up with two Tea Party members, McConnell said there are two kinds of people in politics - those who want to make a point and those who want to make a difference. Do you think he's lived up to that motto in his career?

MACGILLIS: No, until now, he has not. McConnell, more than anyone else really in prominence in Washington, has come to represent what is this mindset that has taken over Washington in both parties and also in the media, which is this permanent campaign mindset where it's always - it's all about winning that next election, winning that next cycle.

I asked a lot of people in reporting the book, including a lot of allies of his - Republicans in Kentucky and Washington - so what do you think it is that Senator McConnell really, really cares about? What's it been about all these years? What's it all been for - all of these elections, all this campaigning? And they had a very hard time answering that question.

WESTERVELT: What major legislation do you see the senator pushing for when the new congressional year starts?

MACGILLIS: You're of course going to have a big fight on immigration. There's going to be some Republicans pushing to pass their own immigration legislation to sort of cancel out President Obama's executive order. It's going to be very interesting to see how McConnell handles that because immigration has been a very good example of an issue where he's been reluctant to put himself out there and take a stand. He - even back when President Bush was in office and was pushing immigration reform, Senator McConnell took a backseat in that debate. So this is an issue that he's been very, very wary of that he sees as a political loser in Kentucky.

The other key thing to watch will be how he handles the new regulations on carbon emissions. He, you know, of course comes from a state that relies quite a bit on coal and the coal industry. And he's spoken a lot about trying to, basically, annul the regulations that Obama's put out on carbon emissions from existing coal plants, which is the big issue when it comes to climate change. So you're going to see him trying to knock down those rules in various big budget bills.

WESTERVELT: And he knows those rules, and he's been a master of them in his career.

MACGILLIS: Exactly, and now he has the chance to finally sort of put that mastery of the rules into practice as the actual majority leader.

WESTERVELT: Alec MacGillis is author of "The Cynic: The Political Education Of Mitch McConnell." Thanks a lot for speaking with us.

MACGILLIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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