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Bill Straub: What’s going on with the usually composed, cool-under-fire Mitch McConnell?

Regardless of the outcome of this year’s U.S. Senate race in Kentucky, at least one unexpected, interesting question has arisen: What in the world is going on with Addison Mitchell McConnell?

Widely known as a political genius – just ask him – the Senate Republican leader seeking a sixth six-year term usually runs a flawless operation, dating all the way back to 1984 when he defeated incumbent Democrat Walter “Dee’’ Huddleston in what many observers to this day consider a mistake-free campaign.

Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell

This cycle, facing Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the McConnell effort has proved anything but flawless. There was the ad back in March during the GOP primary against Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin that featured a couple of University of Kentucky basketball players celebrating a victory – only they weren’t University of Kentucky basketball players. They were a pair of Duke Blue Devils. The hated Duke Blue Devils. The ad was pulled.

Around the same time the campaign released a series of videos for public use showing McConnell trying to smile, which caused Jon Stewart, host of the satirical The Daily Show on Comedy Central to smile. In fact the site of the senator trying to crack a grin caused him to laugh uncontrollably for several seconds.

No harm no foul, as things turned out. McConnell easily defeated Bevin in the primary. But his slip-ups in the general election have been more substantive.

After asserting in September 2013 that the shutdown of the federal government was a mistake, he promised it wouldn’t reoccur if he became majority leader, a distinct possibility given this year’s political map. But in August McConnell hinted another closure could be in the offing if President Obama clashed with Republicans.

He has vowed over and over again to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, “root and branch.’’ But he later implied the commonwealth may be able to retain the benefits of Medicaid expansion – one of the law’s key elements, creating confusion over whether the expansion is a root or a branch or none of the above.

And he’s been all over the map on raising the minimum wage, telling a conference sponsored by the right-wing Koch brothers that “we’re not going to be debating all those gosh darn proposals…like raising the minimum wage’’ if he becomes majority leader, then saying he would allow a vote, then saying “raising the minimum wage might make sense.’’

Rube Goldberg couldn’t have said it better.

More recently McConnell has turned churlish. Usually among the most composed politicians, cool under fire even on the often combative Senate floor, he is increasingly coming across as the grumpy old man armed with a Louisville Slugger shushing playful children off his front lawn.

The most recent example came during an appearance on Kentucky Sports Radio, an extremely popular weekday show broadcast statewide that generally concerns itself with University of Kentucky athletics. The host, Matt Jones, a graduate of the Duke University School of Law, of all things, likes to mix things up and occasionally the talk turns to politics, especially during campaign season.

McConnell agreed to appear on the show popular with Big Blue Nation but was beat to the punch by Grimes, who withstood a half-hour’s interrogation with mixed results – softball, it turns out, was not the sport being played.

Suddenly, McConnell’s enthusiasm for going on the air with Kentucky Sports Radio began to wane. The show’s efforts to contact him about his previously agreed upon appearance proved futile and Jones started harping about being stood up, planting the idea in the heads of listeners that perhaps the man who stands to become the leader of a Republican majority if things go according to Hoyle, doesn’t keep his commitments.

McConnell finally acquiesced and called into the show on Oct. 8 – providing Jones with 10 minutes’ notice.
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The interview itself, it’s fair to surmise, didn’t go quite as well as McConnell might have hoped. It was obvious from the get-go that, given the choice of appearing on the show or undergoing a root canal, the senator would have happily administered the Novocain himself.

McConnell spent the first part of the interview trying to convince the audience that his unbounded love for University of Kentucky sports is equal only to his unbounded love for the University of Louisville and he couldn’t possibly choose one over the other – even though he lives in Louisville, was the Jefferson County judge-executive and founded the McConnell Center, with the mission of nurturing the state’s next generation of great leaders, at the University of Louisville.

Whatever. Good thing we got that cleared up.

The senator then spent a few moments informing the audience across the commonwealth that Jones, the interviewer, was “an Obama enthusiast,’’ while assuring listeners he was not, without explaining why Jones’ alleged support for the president of the United States had anything to do with the UK-UofL rivalry.

The interview proceeded with the calm, composed and somewhat boring McConnell – the one Kentucky voters have long known and loved – alternating with the new, cranky and combative McConnell, practically jumping through the telephone line to throttle Jones at one point when he had the temerity to interrupt a prolonged answer. And he responded angrily again when the host suggested that he answer yes or no when asked if he believes in global climate change.

McConnell ultimately avoided answering the climate question by assuring listeners, “I’m not a scientist.’’ Of course he’s not a doctor either but it doesn’t stop him from taking a position on abortion or Obamacare.

It’s well established that McConnell has changed during his 30 years in Washington. He has gone from a pro-choice, pro-organized labor moderate to an anti-abortion, anti-union conservative carefully making nice with the Tea Party movement. He’s no longer the acolyte of John Sherman Cooper. In fact, he may deny ever having known John Sherman Cooper.

And his demeanor has changed. McConnell has never been a hail-fellow-well-met but he did have a subtle sense of humor – remember the hound dog ads in his first campaign against Huddleston? Compare that humorous take to his appearance on Kentucky Sports Radio.

During that interview, Jones asked McConnell about his position on gay marriage, a perfectly natural inquiry given the times. McConnell’s response was, “It is my belief marriage is between one man and one woman,’’ which is certainly not an uncommon thought among Republicans. When asked by Jones how he arrived at that opinion, McConnell refused to answer at least three times, simply repeating “It is my belief marriage is between one man and one woman.’’

The whole affair was somewhat reminiscent of the great scene in Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes monkey trial, where Matthew Harrison Brady is in the witness chair being questioned by Henry Drummond.

Cornered by Drummond on one question, Brady essentially refused to answer by saying, “I do not think about things that I do not think about.’’ To which Drummond responded, “Do you ever think about things that you DO think about.’’

1 bill straub mug

KyForward Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

To read more from Bill Straub, click here.

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