You have to hand it to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – the guy knows how to go for the political throat. Mild mannered he is not. McConnell plays the political game like his home state Louisville Cardinals played basketball on their way to winning the NCAA national championship – full court pressure, sharp elbows, give no quarter and when the opponent is down dispatch them quickly so that there is no chance – none – that they’ll get back in the contest.
As he prepares for a Senate race in 2014 McConnell’s dismal approval numbers back home find him in familiar form – on the attack. First McConnell dispatched the one candidate, the actress Ashley Judd, who he probably should have dreamed about running against. For a few weeks earlier this year the national press, always a soft touch for a sweet talking celebrity, built up Kentucky-native Judd as though she were the second coming of Hillary Clinton. With perfect hindsight the political novice was never a serious threat to the toughest guy in the Senate, but McConnell and his operatives wasted not a minute labeling Judd a “Hollywood liberal” completely out of touch with Kentucky. Judd helped the labeling effort by acknowledging at one point in her non-campaign campaign that she and her husband “winter in Scotland. We’re smart like that.” Not surprisingly that line did not play all that well in Paducah, especially among the people who do winter there.
Still, before Ashley admitted the obvious and backed of from challenging McConnell – she’s smart like that – the Senator was plotting an offensive that would not merely leave the young woman battered and beaten in the bluegrass, but permanently disabled as a political pretender. McConnell and his advisers plotted defining Judd as “emotionally unbalanced” and, frankly, more than a little strange with off-beat ideas about religion and other subjects.
Standby. Cue the secret tape.
Mother Jones magazine, the same folks who turned up the infamous Mitt Romney 47% video, published a recording of McConnell and his campaign strategists plotting, as the Senate’s top Republican said, to play “whac-a-mole” with the young woman who might be his opponent.
“If I could interject,” McConnell says early in the leaked recording, “I assume most of you have played the game Whac-A-Mole? [Laughter.] This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out…”
When a tape of the “Whac-an-Ashley” session leaked, apparently at the hands of a Democratic Political Action Committee in Kentucky dedicated to doing to McConnell what he does to others, the Senator “maxed out” on the political rhetoric scale. As the Washington Post noted the Senator or his advisers invoked Nixon-style dirty tricks, the awful politics of the “political left” and even Hitler’s Gestapo. Whew. No mention of Castro? Or Hugo Chavez?
What McConnell (and many other politicians) and their opponents are doing with increasing frequency, and this would include the ham-handed “Progress Kentucky” group that apparently made and leaked the tape of the Senator’s “whac-a-mole” session, is a political update of the nuclear weapons strategy known as “mutually assured destruction.” The MAD theory holds that no sane person will use a nuclear weapon if they know with certainty that their enemy will react in kind. Both sides avoid the ultimate, well, whack because the stakes involved are just too dangerous.
McConnell’s strategy – again, not knew to him – is an update, a variation on MAD – nuke the other side before they even become a candidate. After all you don’t need to worry about the other sides missiles when the other side has no missiles.
No longer is it enough in our politics to defeat an opponent they must be “destroyed” or at a minimum “whacked.” Such a strategy is particularly effective when employed against a novice candidate, or candidate wannabee, like the young Ms. Judd. Before they know what has hit them they are effectively disqualified as a viable candidate. We can date the rise of modern “whac-a-mole” politics to the 1980 election when, for the first time on a national scale a new invention, the political action committee (PAC), made its appearance. Formed for the express purpose of attacking, wounding and ultimately destroying candidates these down-and-dirty operations both coarsened our politics and made the nuke ’em strategy particularly popular with incumbents. The idea that campaigns before 1980 tended to be most local and statewide affairs seems positively quaint today.
If you wonder why the U.S. Senate has become a daily snake pit of hyper-partisanship where a lack of trust prevents serious work on the nation’s serious business, revisit those 1980 campaigns. Four-term incumbent Sen. Frank Church of Idaho was the prime target of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) that year and Church had been in NCPAC’s sights for months. NCPAC’s scummy director Terry Dolan boasted that “By 1980 there will be people voting against Church without remembering why.” He was right. Church lost re-election that year at the hands of a fundamentally dishonest campaign. The same kind of attacks took George McGovern, Birch Bayh, John Culver, Gaylord Nelson, nine Democrats in total, from the Senate in the same cycle. As the late Dave Broder wrote at the time the 1980 election “certainly had all the appearance of an era ending – and a new one beginning.”
Candidates learned from the ’80 election that political survival is best assured with a “first strike” of such overpowering force that the opponent is effectively destroyed. It is the rare candidate these days who find the character attacks – the whacking – so distasteful that they won’t go there, so McConnell is far from alone in embracing this new era. He may be the new era’s most skilled practitioner, however. In the Kentucky Senator’s case the nuke ’em approach also has the benefit of making his campaign about small things rather than big things . Who wants to talk about Afghanistan or the budget when you can talk about Gestapo tactics and unbalanced potential opponents? So far McConnell has mostly succeeded in making this small story about the fact that his secret “whac-a-mole” meeting was secretly taped rather than about the substance of what was on the tape. In fairness to McConnell the Progress Kentucky PAC is clearly trying to pull on him what NCPAC pulled in 1980. They’re just not very good at it. Still, a pox on all the houses.
I know, I know, politics ain’t bean bag. Sharp elbows and unfair attacks are as old as the Republic. A young Lyndon Johnson once tried out on an aide a particularly scurrilous line of attack he was considering using against an opponent. The aide protested that the attack simply wasn’t true, but Johnson just smiled and said, “let him deny it.” Still, even LBJ eventually learned that there is more to politics that winning at all cost. Gleefully destroying opponents doesn’t do a lot for their reputation or yours.
Mitch McConnell is very good at the sharp elbows part of politics and, as he girds for a sixth term, clearly very good at winning elections. You shouldn’t put any smart money on the most unpopular man in the Senate losing next year. At the same time McConnell is proof of the truth contained in the old axiom that skills required for winning elections are not usually the skills needed to govern effectively. The history books will likely remember him for resisting every type of control on money in politics and for famously saying that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Disqualifying Ashley Judd won’t get you a chapter in Profiles in Courage and scorched earth politics – whether from a Mitch McConnell or the sleazy PAC out to get him – ultimately only feed the dysfunction of a Senate and a political system in need of real leaders rather than guys who spend their days plotting how to whack moles.