McConnell Embraces Spotlight

GOP Senate Leader Takes On New Role as Messenger in Chief

Posted February 3, 2009 at 6:30pm

Shy no longer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has emerged in recent weeks as one of the GOP’s most vocal and unexpected messengers.

Since January, the typically soft-spoken and press-averse McConnell has appeared on national radio and television programs 10 times — all but two of which have come in the past 10 days — including appearances on ABC’s “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “American Morning” and NBC’s “Today Show.”

He also has delivered the Republicans’ national radio response to President Barack Obama’s weekly address and appeared on shows ranging from National Public Radio programming to the conservative Hugh Hewitt radio show.

Additionally, McConnell, who is not prone to giving “major” speeches, has in recent weeks delivered two high-profile policy addresses — the first at the National Press Club outlining areas on which Senate Republicans hope to work with the administration and the second to the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting criticizing the party’s increasingly regional role and offering his thoughts on how to resurrect the GOP.

Colleagues and other Republicans said McConnell’s newfound role as a central GOP figurehead stems not only from his sudden freedom — the Senate Republican leader no longer has to follow the lead of former President George W. Bush — but also from the fact that he is the only national Republican who can force the Democrats into a substantive policy debate.

“Circumstances have certainly dictated that he’d be the spokesman given the change in administration,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said, adding that “he’s a good spokesman” for the party as Republicans struggle with how to rebuild their party.

In an interview on Tuesday, McConnell stressed that he does not see his role as a top GOP messenger as a one-person job. Rather, he insisted that he, along with other Republican leaders, will align to advance the party’s cause.

“It’s a statement of the obvious that when you don’t have the White House and don’t have a presidential candidate, there won’t be any one messenger,” McConnell said, adding that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has his responsibilities and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has his.

McConnell said that while his voice may ring loudest on occasion because so much of the political focus is on the Senate, he is working with Boehner, Steele and a number of prominent Republican governors to get the GOP’s message out and to help rebuild the party.

However, McConnell did acknowledge that being the leader of the Senate Republican Conference gives him a unique opportunity that neither Boehner nor Steele have, given that his chamber’s rules make it possible for the minority to be heard both through debate and votes.

“It’s only natural that the Senate would be the place, because we don’t have the White House, we don’t have the House, so the Senate is the only place we can do it” because its rules allow the minority to offer amendments and potentially stall legislation, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) explained.

“It’s an advantage that I have,” McConnell conceded, explaining that he will use the chamber as a way to test-drive new GOP policy proposals and ideas that are based on the party’s core conservative principles. “Think of the Senate as a kind of incubator for ideas,” McConnell said.

Republicans also noted that McConnell, who rarely did national television or radio appearances over the past two years, has been suddenly freed of a domineering White House.

For much of the last eight years, virtually all Republican policy and messaging decisions emanated from the Bush administration, which appeared to have little concern for the often conflicting needs of House and Senate Republicans.

But since the beginning of the 111th Congress, McConnell and Boehner have enjoyed new freedoms and found themselves thrust into the limelight as their party’s most prominent faces. McConnell has the added advantage of no longer being in cycle, having survived a tough and time-consuming re-election battle in 2008.

While Boehner, because of his Conference’s conservative leanings, has largely focused his efforts on reassuring a nervous Republican base that the party will not abandon its conservative principles in the Obama era, McConnell has sought to strike a more diplomatic note, aides and other Republicans said.

His RNC speech, for instance, was largely an indictment of the party’s shift to the hard right of American politics and warned that if the GOP message was not broadened, Republicans could find themselves marginalized into a regional party whose influence does not extend beyond the Deep South and parts of the West.

Although the speech may have rubbed some conservatives the wrong way, others, like Cornyn, acknowledged that McConnell’s warning was spot on.

“I think that concerns everybody. We’re a national party [and] we want to be a national party. Something’s got to change,” Cornyn said. “I’m one of the most conservative Members of the Senate. But I recognize that someone as conservative as me may not be able to get elected in certain parts of the country.”