Sunday, January 24, 1999

Now yakking on a TV near you: Mitch


McConnell speaks, and reporters are all ears

BY PATRICK CROWLEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Here's some old news. Mitch McConnell is on TV this morning.

        Today the senior U.S. senator from Kentucky is on Fox News Sunday. In the last week, he's been on national television at least five times, appearing on news, talk and political shows like CNN Crossfire, Larry King Live, Moneyline and Face the Nation.

        Since the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment against President Clinton on Dec. 19, which is why everybody wants Mr. McConnell's talking head, the Republican from Louisville has made 25 appearances on CNN Inside Politics, MSNBC News With Brian Williams, PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, The Today Show and Meet The Press.

        Mitch is huge. Mitch is omnipresent. It seems he's on TV more than that kid from The Wonder Years, more than that zany pair of gals from the '70s, Laverne and Shirley — programs that are on nightly through the magic, or maybe the curse, of syndication and cable television.

Better than basketball
        Here's a scene that could only, thankfully, take place in Washington, D.C.

        It's the night before Mr. Clinton's Senate trial begins. A crowd is packed into a sports bar about two blocks from the Capitol. Half the TVs are tuned in to a college basketball game. The other half show Mr. McConnell chatting with Larry King — and more people are watching Mitch.

        All that facetime on the tube is in addition to the practically daily interviews he's given to the networks and cable news programs and all the comments he's made to national newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

        Even his top aide is getting accolades. Lexington native Kyle Simmons, the senator's chief-of-staff, recently made Roll Call's Fabulous Fifty list, which the Washington political and government newspaper bills as “the movers and shakers behind the scenes on Capitol Hill.”

        Northern Kentucky Republicans know Mr. Simmons for his work on Jim Bunning's successful U.S. Senate campaign last year. Mr. McConnell “loaned” Mr. Simmons to the Bunning campaign. The day he was sworn into office earlier this month, Kentucky's newest senator praised the work performed by Mr. Simmons and Scott Douglas, another McConnell staffer.

        It's pretty obvious where Mr. Simmons learned how to become a “mover and shaker behind the scenes.” That's Mr. McConnell's game, and he plays it well.

A powerful player
        Part of the reason Mr. McConnell is in such demand is obvious. He's chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which is helping call the shots in the impeachment trial.

        But the real reason the public Mitch is in such demand is because the private Mitch — the behind-the-scenes player — has become such a force in Washington.

        Stories out of the Capitol are claiming that when it comes to making tough decisions about impeachment and the trial, especially when it comes to political maneuvers, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott doesn't even put a comb to his well-coiffed do without asking Mr. McConnell where to put the part.

        In other words, Mr. McConnell is helping guide the Senate Republicans' entire strategy when it comes to impeachment.

        The stakes are huge, not just for Mr. Clinton but for those trying to run him from office. Any way you slice it, the Republicans in the Senate are trying to get rid of a president who, for whatever reasons, continues to put up big numbers when it comes to approval ratings.

        Even some high-profile GOP members and strategists, among them Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson and a growing cadre of the party's political consultants and fund-raisers, are telling their senators to get the dang thing over.

        The fear is voter retaliation in 2000, when the Republicans hope to retake the White House after an eight-year hiatus and reverse some of their losses in the November midterm elections.

        Enter Mr. McConnell, the perfect trump card to play when the political heat is on.

        If the issue is unpopular or controversial, Mr. McConnell is at his best, or his worst, according to those on the opposite side.

        He's against campaign finance reform and for allowing people to burn the flag. He takes tough stands on tobacco in his own state, where burley is a $1 billion industry. He wants a hard line on dealing with the bloodthirsty Serbs, including the use of military force. He's ready to take on affirmative action because he says it gives racial and gender preferences that he opposes.

A cold fish no more
        Democrats back home are growing tired of Mr. McConnell's TV persona. They grouse that he has become little more than a talking head who is more concerned with his own image and promoting the agenda of the Republican Party than representing the interests of Kentuckians.

        Once a bit of a cold fish with the media, Mr. McConnell has clearly warmed to his new, overt role as a leading Republican and Senate spokesman. With a couple of Democrats — Gov. Paul Patton and Louisville businessman Charlie Owen — said to be eyeing a run against him in 2002, Mr. McConnell clearly sees the value of getting his mug on television as much as he can.

        It's definitely a political gamble being so far out front in the backroom dealings of the Senate's impeachment strategy. But Mr. McConnell loves rolling the dice and taking the big risk when it comes to politics.

        Continue to watch, closely, what Mr. McConnell does and says as the impeachment drama unfolds. His actions provide a great hint as to where the GOP strategy is heading.

        It's not hard to find him. Just turn on the television.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. His column appears Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 578-5581, or (502) 875-7526 in Frankfort, or by e-mail at crowleys@cinci.infi.net

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for the Enquirer. He can be reached at 578-5581, or (502) 875-7526 in Frankfort.

CROWLEY ARCHIVE