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Decades In The Senate, McConnell Learns To Play 'The Long Game'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Senator Mitch McConnell was voted into office the same year that President Ronald Reagan was re-elected. The senator from Kentucky was the only Republican Senate challenger to win a seat in 1984. He's been in the U.S. Senate ever since. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with McConnell about his decades in the Senate and his role as Senate majority leader.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: How would you describe your leadership style?

MITCH MCCONNELL: What I have said is - when the American people elect divided government, what are they saying? I think they're saying we know you have differences of opinion on big things. But why don't you look for the things you can agree on and do those? And that has been the way I have run this new majority.

First of all, we're voting again. You would think that'd be pretty simple. But in the last year of the old majority, there were only 15 roll call votes on amendments the whole year. We had over 200 last year. For 4 of the last 5 years, they didn't pass a budget. We did that. And then I focused on things that enjoyed broad bipartisan support. And we've had a very productive year and a half.

INSKEEP: So when I think over time of your leadership style, Senator, it seems to me that you do something that feels, from the outside, rather intricate. You will sometimes say quite fierce partisan things because that is what the situation demands, while quietly, perhaps in private, trying to work some practical way forward. Is that the way you see yourself?

MCCONNELL: Well, it depends on the issue. You know, the three biggest bipartisan deals that have been made during the Obama years, the vice president and I negotiated. We did the two-year extension of Bush tax cuts in 2010. We negotiated the Budget Control Act in August of 2011 and the fiscal cliff deal at the end of 2012, which saved 99 percent of Americans from a tax increase.

So, you know, there have been occasions where acting was essential. And so I - I've been open to reaching agreement with the Democrats where it doesn't violate any deeply held positions that Republicans almost always advocate.

INSKEEP: In this book, you write that you don't like the label obstructionist. You would rather say that you have a duty to block things when they aren't any good. How do you know the difference?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think you have to have a sense of what you believe in and what you think's important for the country. And I have a right of center philosophy, as most conservatives do, about what's the appropriate way forward for the country. And we were elected as well. I mean, people talk about the president being elected. Well, we were, too.

So I think you have to decide what things you can agree on. And then are other things that we're just going to differ on. For example, the most conspicuous example has been Obamacare, which was done on a purely partisan basis and upon which all Republicans and all Democrats seem to disagree.

INSKEEP: You've got a chapter in his book called Professor Obama. And I think it is not misstating it to say that you make it clear you don't like him very much.

MCCONNELL: I think that is misstating it. I don't dislike the president. What I do find grating is the tendency to kind of try to tell you what you think to your face (laughter). And on a couple of occasions, I've said look, Mr. President - I know what I think. You know, Professor Obama has been a label applied to him by Republicans and Democrats alike. He's a very smart guy. But I think he'd be, you know, better served not to spend so much time trying to impress us with his particular position on an issue and understand that there are things upon which we simply have a disagreement.

INSKEEP: In the years that you both have been at the top of government - granted you're in different parties, but supposed to be working in the same government - has the president ever asked your advice?

MCCONNELL: Not that I can recall.

INSKEEP: There's never been an occasion where he said, Senator, you know the Senate really well. You know we have to do something here. How would you do it?

MCCONNELL: The thing we worked the closest together on, which was almost an out of-body experience, was Trade Promotion Authority, a situation where both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi...

INSKEEP: Democratic leaders and Congress...

MCCONNELL: ...Yeah, were against what the president was trying to achieve. We did have a lot of interaction on that. And his job was to produce enough Democrats to pass it, which he barely did. But that was an important accomplishment, not just for him, but for the next president as well because Trade Promotion Authority will still be there for the next president as well.

INSKEEP: Have you ever asked his advice?

MCCONNELL: Not that I can recall.

INSKEEP: So not much of a - just, it doesn't sound like there's an awful lot of...

MCCONNELL: Why would I want to - with all due respect to your question, I think I have a pretty clear view of the direction I'd like to see the country go. He has a pretty clear view of the direction he'd like to see the country go. When we can find areas of agreement, we discuss them.

INSKEEP: When you talk about your idea of which direction the country should go, how much does your viewpoint on the country grow out of your upbringing in Alabama, later in Kentucky, some other places?

MCCONNELL: Well, I began, I think, early in life to identify with Republicans because my father, who had fought in World War II, decided to vote for Eisenhower. We lived in Alabama. You know, this was pretty unusual (laughter).

INSKEEP: This is a time when Democrats dominated the South, sure.

MCCONNELL: Totally Democratic in the South. The Republican Party was still viewed in that era as the party of the North. So in my little fifth grade photograph out of school, I had an I like Ike button on my (laughter) - on my shirt. And I think I began to identify, like I guess most kids would, with a party your dad was sympathetic toward. And I began to get interested in politics myself. I ran for president of the student council at my high school in Louisville. And ran against a guy who I thought was better known and little bit better student and managed to win. And so one thing led to another.

INSKEEP: Managed to win, I think, doesn't tell enough of the story. You describe how you went about winning. What did you do?

MCCONNELL: Well, you know, I was trying to figure out how to beat a guy who was better known and a better student than me. And I remember my dad and I having a discussion about - he said - well, who are the best-known people in the the school? I said, well, it's the cheerleaders and the athletes. He said well, why don't you get them to support you?

(Laughter) I went and did and asked them. And we made up a pamphlet that said join us in voting for Mitch McConnell for president. And it listed their names and what they did - football, basketball, cheerleaders. It worked. And so I learned the importance of endorsements and a lot of other...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) It sounds like an endorsements meant more then than perhaps they mean in politics today.

MCCONNELL: Yeah, I think today they're probably not worth a whole lot. But in those days, in that high school, at that time, it was a smart strategy. And I learned early on that running the best campaign gives you the best chance of winning.

INSKEEP: Senator McConnell, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

MCCONNELL: Thank you.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Senator Mitch McConnell is the author of a new memoir called "The Long Game." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.