Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined On Point for a discussion of "The Long Game," his new memoir, on Wednesday, June 1. Below, find a transcript of the conversation.
Tom Ashbrook: You write right at the front of this book that “success in politics is a lot of work, and pretending otherwise isn’t just pointless,” you say, “it never seemed right to me.” You put in the work over a long time that made you Senate Majority Leader. Has Donald Trump put in the work to be President of the United States?
Sen. Mitch McConnell: Well, I can tell you what worked for me, and I had an early lesson, being stricken with polio at age two. We lived in a small town in Alabama, my dad was overseas fighting the Germans, and fortunately, we happened to be about an hour’s drive from Warm Springs, the polio treatment center that President Roosevelt had set up to help others who were afflicted with the disease like he. My mother took me over there, they trained her, they taught her how to do a physical therapy regimen, which she administered about four times a day. The reason I tell you this story Tom is uh, an early example of how life works for most of us, which is, you work hard, you deal with adversity that comes your way, you overcome it – my first memory in life was the last visit to Warm Springs, where the nurses told my mother they thought I was going to have a normal childhood, the polio that had affected my left leg was recovered enough to where I would not have a brace and not even walk with a limp. So Donald Trump is a different kind of politician, there’s no question about it. But for most of us, success in life is a long game. It’s persistence, dealing with adversity, overcoming the inevitable speed bumps of life, and never giving up. So he is a different kind of politician, there’s no question about that. I think the reason he prevailed is because the right of center voters in the country are deeply interested in somebody from the outside, somebody quite different. And my attitude is, the voters get to decide in this country. You win elections, you get to make policy. And he’s gotten to be the nominee by winning election after election. And for most of us in the right of center world, the thought of four more years like the last eight is not very appealing, and that’s what we think Hillary Clinton would be.
TA: I want to come back to that, but I also want to pay close attention to that personal story of yours, that early polio, that you write as having significantly influenced how you saw the world. Was it possible – you were very young when you made that last trip to Warm Springs – but did you ever see a vision wherein you would suffer lifelong consequences, do you remember your parents talking about it, did you think it was going to be some serious physical impairment over the course of your life, or was it clear early on that – you say you have some trouble walking down steps, but other than that – not real big repercussions – was that clear to you as a boy?
MM: Well I was lucky. We dodged a bullet. My first memory in life was that last visit to Warm Springs. We stopped and bought a pair of low-topped shoes and my mother –
TA: Saddle shoes, you write.
MM: Yeah. Little saddle Oxford shoes. And so I don’t want to sound like I had a tough childhood. I had a normal childhood, and the reason for that was my mother. In fact, even though I couldn’t run long distances very well, I was able to play baseball and achieve some level of success at that. And so look, it was just a very early life lesson that an early start frequently gets you where you want to go. I remember there was an old politician in Kentucky named Happy Chandler who used to say, you can start too late but never too soon. And even when I ran for president of the student body in high school, I worked on it for several years – probably the only one in class thinking about it that far in advance. So for me at least, and I think for most people, success is not an afterthought. I’ve never been into simple answers to complex problems. So I don’t think there’s any question that I’m a different kind of political leader from Donald Trump. But I’m pretty confident he would be a serious break from the policies of the last eight years, which I think have not been good for our country.
TA: How do you see that childhood experience playing out in the way you run the Senate, the way you’ve interacted with your colleagues there over time, the way you’ve interacted with the Obama administration, perhaps the way you would interact with the Trump administration, if that should come to pass?
MM: Well look, I think that if you’re going to be in a legislative body, and particularly the United States Senate, you have to become accustomed to getting less than you want for dealing with a less than perfect outcome. That’s the legislative process. Those were the kind of compromises involved in framing the Constitution itself, a series of compromises. So no matter what a candidate for president may say during the campaign, once someone is sworn in, they are constrained by the Constitution – about what the Constitution allows and doesn’t allow, what the law allows and doesn’t allow. And I think many presidents make claims during the campaign that they are unable to achieve unless they can engage in an extraordinary interaction with the legislative body with which they’d be confronted the day after they’re sworn in.
TA: The Washington Post editorializes today, talking about Donald Trump just yesterday in his press conference about whether or not he really put up the money for the veterans that he promised back in January. And I’m sure you’ve had many interactions with the Post’s editorial page over the years, but they say, “Mr. Trump’s over the top response shows that he does not have the restraint, the openness, or the values that every modern American president has shared.” Why have you endorsed him, Senator McConnell?
MM: I think I’ve already said it. I think that the country really needs a change from the past eight years, from the tepid growth rate we have, for the lack of opportunity that is there for so many Americans, the fact that there are fewer people in the middle class now than there were when the President came into office, all of that I think argues for a change, and there’s no question that Donald Trump is a different kind of candidate. I do, however, have a number of differences with him, which I’ve expressed in the past and will continue to express going forward.
TA: I want to stay with your life story as you tell it in The Long Game. You take us back to 1964, when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Bill, and had the support, as you remind us, of most members of Congress, a few exceptions, including a politician who was kind of a hero to you at that time, Barry Goldwater. And you write that you were so put off by him opposing that that you ended up voting for LBJ, a Democrat, in that election. And you say that Goldwater’s stance against the Civil Rights Act, you’re writing here in The Long Game, that “a century of principled advocacy for Civil Rights was forgotten the moment we nominated Barry Goldwater for president, sacrificing that proud heritage, not to mention our chances at the White House, was tragic any way you cut it.” Many people may read that in your memoir and think of Mr. Trump’s comments just in this campaign season about Hispanic-Americans, about Muslim-Americans. Are you afraid of a comparable fallout from this nomination that you witnessed in your youth in Barry Goldwater?
MM: Well first, I was very angry with Goldwater. He was a hero of mine. I had in fact invited him to come to the University of Louisville while I was the College Republican President. I was surprised that he accepted. So I was very angry – very angry with Senator Goldwater, and that’s why I voted against him, a vote I later regretted. Fast-forwarding to the present, I think it is a mistake for Donald Trump to be attacking Latinos, and others. For example, the other day he took off after Susana Martinez, the Republican Governor of New Mexico who happens to be the chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association, a truly outstanding Governor. I don’t know why he did that and I think he should quit doing that sort of thing. We had an interesting exchange I think you would be interested in, Tom—
TA: Yes, please—
MM: I ran into Trump in the green room at the N.R.A. convention in my hometown of Louisville a couple of weeks ago. And I said, Hey Donald, have you got a script? And he pulled it out of his pocket. And I said, are you gonna use it? And he said, I hate scripts. He said, they’re boring. And I said, put me down in favor of boring. I think you need to use a script more often. I stayed and watched his speech, and he did a little of both, he did finally pull the script out and read it and make the points that needed to be made. The point I was trying to make to him is that it’s pretty clear that entertaining audiences and tweeting has gotten him to the place he is today. My view is, that won’t take him to the White House. And I’d like to see the attacks, particularly on fellow Republicans, stop. I’d like to see him use a prepared text more often. And present to the public a thoughtful presentation on the issues that are confronting our country at this particular juncture.
TA: The script for this country is the Constitution. And you express a lot of admiration for it and what it imposes on legislation and governing in your memoir, Senator McConnell. Are you confident that Donald Trump will stick to the script of the US Constitution?
MM: He won’t have any choice. He won’t have any choice. That constrains us all. That’s the way Madison intended that we all be restrained from our worst impulses by the system. And we have now a Constitution that’s been interpreted for over 200 years that requires us to operate within certain parameters. So I’m not worried about it. I think that he will operate within those parameters, as we all have to.
TA: You say that it’s a big, boisterous, complex country. Getting to the top of any field should be tough. Has it been tough enough for Mr. Trump?
MM: We’ll find out. It oughta be hard to be elected president. I almost always tell the candidates, almost all of whom I’ve known before they ran, that the best day they have will be the day before they announce. It is a pressure-packed experience. You have to, in my view, endure the scrutiny that a person running for this office oughta get. I do think Trump is overly sensitive to criticism. I think that’s something he outhgta work hard to get over, because you’re in a business in which criticism is a daily affair. I, at my level, deal with it on a daily basis. You can get offended by it, or you can say, that’s part of the price for operating in our free society in which everyone gets to say and do whatever they want to.
TA: Is “we’ll find out” good enough when we’re talking about the President of the United States?
MM: It depends on how frustrated you are with the past eight years. For people like myself, who are in the right of center world, looking at the condition of the country today, the way the average person has fallen behind, the way there are fewer people in the middle class today than there were when the President came into office, I think we desperately need to go in a different direction. And that is exactly, of course, what the Republican primary voters have been saying. Now we’re into a larger audience. And Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will make their arguments to a larger audience in the fall. And we’ll just see how many Americans would like to have a break from the last eight years and go in a different direction.
TA: You swung in behind Mr. Trump pretty quickly after it was clear he was going to take the nomination. Your counterpart in the House, Speaker Paul Ryan, has not. How do you explain that difference between the two of you, Senator?
MM: Well I would let Paul explain his position. My view was that I didn’t particularly want to – shall I say, lecture? – the American voters in these various primaries and caucuses who expressed themselves over and over and over again, many times, that they preferred to have somebody quite different from what we are accustomed to having. And so I honor the results of the primaries. He got the nomination the old-fashioned way – he won it.
Caller Peter from Lexington, Kentucky: I should identify that I am a lifelong liberal Democrat. Donald Trump scares me. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton scares me in a different way because I think she’s got a somewhat tenuous grasp on the concept of truth. To me, frankly, I don’t really think it matters who wins in one sense, and that is something that President Lincoln said 150 years ago or so, and that is, in the final analysis, the people in a democracy get the president and the leaders that they deserve. In that sense, I think Lincoln is going to win the election.
TA: Is that comforting, Peter?
Peter: Not entirely. But I think the people deserve it. The Constitution means whatever the last person to interpret it means.
MM: I think Peter made a rather interesting observation. He’s a reflection of the view of a whole lot of Americans that they really don’t like the choice. This is going to be an election between two of the most unpopular individuals in American history at the time they are seeking the presidency. So I think for a lot of Americans, they view it as a Hobson’s choice. And I can see Peter kind of struggling with that himself. They don’t like either choice. I ran into a person the other day who said out of 330 million Americans, is this the best we can do? But look – everybody’s been voting here. And at the end of the day, the Democrats are going to pick Hillary Clinton, the Republicans have picked Donald Trump. This is the choice. And even if we’re not happy with the choice, I think we have to make the decision based on other things. And you don’t have to be in love, in my case, with the personality of Donald Trump. But you can conclude that you don’t like where we are now. And that it’s worth taking a chance on going in a different direction. I think for voters who are comfortable with the Obama administration, who think the last eight years have been just fine, in the end, will conclude that Hillary is fine whether they care for her personally or not. This is not a year in which there are a whole lot of happy voters. I was listening to a presentation the other day from a pollster who said, all the democrats are mad at Wall Street, and all the Republicans are mad at the government, but everybody’s pretty mad about something. So this is not a happy electorate. But somebody will be chosen in an orderly fashion in November, and we’ll have a transition of power just like we have had every four years since George Washington.
TA: You sort of threw yourself across the tracks with the Obama administration, said that the most important thing was for there not to be a second term. There was of course, but you write about how you achieved some success from your perspective in stopping, slowing some of the initiatives that the Obama administration sought. What role do you picture yourself playing if it were a Trump administration? Are you utterly confident that you could exercise the kind of control required to move toward your goals and not away from – I guess I come back to the Constitution.
MM: Well, with regard to my comment about wanting the President to be a one-term President, that was two years in, after we had seen Obamacare and the stimulus and Dodd-Frank. The American people took a look at the electorate, at the situation, decided they’d had a case of buyers remorse, changed the House, and made me the leader of the larger group in the Senate. What I appreciated Bob Woodruff in the Washington Post doing is pointing out the rest of what I said. I said I hoped the President would be a one-term President, but in the meantime, that we should look for things that we could agree on, and make some progress with the country. And interestingly enough, it was in those two years between 2010 and 2012 that the Vice President and I did three major bipartisan deals. The December 2010 two-year extension of the Bush Tax Cuts, the August 2011 Budget Control Act, which actually reduced government spending for two years in a row for the first time since after the Korean War, and the December 31, 2012 fiscal cliff deal, which prevented a tax increase on 99% of Americans. All of those were important bipartisan agreements worth doing. So. The answer to your question is, there are plenty of things we disagree with the President on. But when you have divided government, I think what the American people are saying is, we know you’ve got some big disagreements, but why don’t you look for the things you agree on and do those? So at the risk of extending my answer a bit further, in the year and a half when I’ve been responsible for setting the agenda in the Senate, we’ve looked for the things that we can agree on. And on those – Trade Promotion Authority, a rewrite of No Child Left Behind, a 5 year Highway Bill, which hadn’t been done since the ‘90s – you think that was easy? It wasn’t. The cyber-security legislation. Permanent R&D tax credit. Permanent internet tax moratorium, a comprehensive energy bill, a comprehensive opioid and heroin addiction bill and so on – things that were important and worth doing that would get a presidential signature. Yeah, we have big disagreement over things like Obamacare. But we’ve had a very productive year and a half of spending our time on the things that can make a difference for the country, and doing those.
Caller Robert in Atlanta, Georgia: I’m an independent voter. Have been for all of my life, I’m 63 years old. My question is, I try to pay really close attention to what’s going on with the political landscape, and at the end of the Bush Administration, we were losing 30,000 jobs a month. We went into the worst recession since the ’29 Depression. And, while I don’t like a lot of things that the Obama Administration has done, I am a businessman, I’ve paid several million dollars in taxes over my life, and I actually feel that we’ve been more stable under the Obama Administration. So when I look at Hillary Clinton and I look at Trump going forward, I’m worried about both as a prior caller said, but I don’t feel that the Republicans have the majority of the country in mind. I feel that they are very focused on a right of center agenda that doesn’t have the majority of the electorate in consideration. And I’d like to have your comment on that.
MM: Yeah, I appreciate that. I think the problem with your analysis is, yeah, we had a deep recession in 2007 and 2008. Certainly the current President can appropriately lay that on the previous administration and the Congress that was there then. The real issue is, what about the recovery? This is the most tepid recovery after a deep recession since World War II. Normally the pattern is, the deeper the recession, the deeper the bounce-back. What I think this administration did wrong – and as a businessperson, you must see this, because no aspect of the private sector has escaped the regulatory rampage which has descended upon all of the American economy – Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the overregulation of financial services, which have been particularly difficult for medium and small banks – EPA, the NLRB, the FCC – you name the agency, there’s been a complete regulatory rampage. And what that’s done is produce an economy that hadn’t had a single quarter, not one, of 3% growth rate. In fact, the average growth rate of this administration is about 1.5%. The average growth rate of our country over the years is 4%. Record numbers of people on food stamps –
TA: I guess it’s not easy coming out of a recession that deep, is it?
MM: Well, normally the pattern’s just the opposite though, Tom. The deeper the recession, the quicker the bounce-back. And so the mistakes were, all of this sort of European-type over-regulation has clogged up the system and slowed the growth. Think of it this way. The administration has had their foot on the break, when we needed the foot on the accelerator.
Caller Bob from Jamestown, Kentucky: Senator McConnell, I’m down here in Jamestown, you’re well familiar with that, you’ve been down here over the years. You spent a considerable part of the President’s first term trying to keep him out of office. Now why is there such an emphasis on partisan politics? It looks like folks would try to get together and solve some of these problems. I know that with the Supreme Court nominee, you’re dead set against that, waiting for the next President. But it seems like, right now, the country is in such a demise with this upcoming Presidential election and even down to the state level, there’s just too much partisan politics. What’s your comment on that, Senator?
MM: Thanks for calling from Jamestown. That’s near the Cumberland Lake, which I’ve been on a number of times. I hope you were listening to the program earlier, because I gave a whole litany of things that we’ve done together with the Obama administration going back to the very beginning. So we have looked for areas to make improvements where we could agree, even though we have some big disagreements. You mentioned the Supreme Court. We’re not gonna fill this vacancy created in the middle of a Presidential election year. It’s been 80 years since the last time a vacancy was created in the middle of a presidential election year and then confirmed. You’d have to go back to 1888, Grover Cleveland in the White House, to find the last time the Senate controlled by an opposite party of the President, filled a vacancy on the Supreme Court created during a presidential election year. Joe Biden, when he was chairman of the judiciary committee, said, they wouldn’t fill a vacancy if it occurred in a presidential election year. Harry Reid said the Constitution doesn’t even require the Senate to vote. And Chuck Schumer said 18 months before Bush 43’s tenure was up that they wouldn’t fill a vacancy if it occurred during the middle of a presidential year. So look – on filling a Supreme Court vacancy, we have shared responsibility. It doesn’t require a presidential signature. He makes the nomination, we decide whether or not to confirm. And the history of this has been, when you have a vacancy on the Supreme Court occurring in the middle of a presidential election year, you let the next president make the appointment. And that’s what’s going to happen this time.
TA: How do we get out of the gridlock, that this caller and many others feel in this country? You know the deep level of disappointment that’s out there right now. How do we get out of this and get the country effectively moving forward again?
MM: I think it helps to state the facts. And as I have said repeatedly Tom during your program, we’ve passed a lot of major legislation.
TA: And yet people look around and say, wow.
MM: I know they don’t think that. Because it’s fashionable. And I don’t blame people for blaming the condition on government in general. People have every right to be upset. They’re not doing as well as they used to, and they have every right to be upset with the government. But in fact – the facts speak for themselves – this has been an extraordinarily productive period where we’ve looked for the things we can agree on, and we’ve done those.
TA: Well, it’s fascinating how that doesn’t show up in the polls’ perception.
MM: Well, they teach you guys that good news is not news, right? Accomplishment is not worth a headline.
TA: I’m not sure –
MM: Oh, that is the way it is. You know it.
TA: You think it’s just the press, it’s just the press’s presentation of what’s going on? I’m not so sure.
MM: No, no – conflict, they teach them in journalism school – conflict, and bad news is more important news.
TA: Senator McConnell, thank you very much for being here.
MM: Thank you.