Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
It is odd that in a year widely cited by political handicappers as favorable for Republicans, one of the most senior elected GOP officials in Washington—Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate—is perhaps the most embattled Republican incumbent up for reelection. Though McConnell easily fended off a tea party challenge in his home state of Kentucky, defeating businessman Matt Bevin in Tuesday's Republican primary contest, the five-term senator will now face off against Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Democratic secretary of state, in a race deemed to be one of the more competitive clashes of the year. Yes, with Republicans riding high—and giddy at the prospect of taking the Senate—their main man in the Senate is fighting for his political life. Why is this? The answer may be simple: He's not that likable.
In his decades in public life, McConnell has not been fully embraced by his fellow Bluegrass Staters. He won his Senate seat by taking on Democratic incumbent Walter Huddleston in 1984, and he bagged merely 5,200 votes more than Huddleston—about a 0.4 percent margin. (Ronald Reagan won the state that year by 21 percentage points.) In his four subsequent reelection bids, McConnell only topped 55 percent of the vote once. (In 2002, he drew 64.7 percent.) These days, his approval rating in the state hovers in the low 30s —far below President Barack Obama's anemic national numbers. Given McConnell's low standing, almost any Democrat who doesn't drool would stand a chance against this well-funded, influential Washington power broker.
McConnell's political unpopularity among Democrats is not surprising. He lacks the slightest hint of charisma or charm—or personality—that conservatives sometimes can employ to win over Dems, especially in Southern states. He certainly doesn't look good holding a gun. His awkward relationship with conservatives is a bit puzzling. In Washington, he has in recent years developed the rep as a chief obstructer of Obama. In 2010, he notably said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." What's not for a tea partier to like about that? McConnell has been a steady foe of Obamacare and still calls for its repeal. Yet the TPers in the GOP have squawked for years that McConnell is an accommodationist. He went along with the TARP bailout, and he negotiated last-minute deals with Obama on tax cuts and the debt ceiling. But these actions ended up well—even by conservative standards. The bailout led to a profit for taxpayers, and McConnell's backroom wheeling-and-dealing won the Rs an extension of the Bush tax cuts, a sharp drop in the estate tax, and dramatic spending cuts.
Yet McConnell has not been a bomb-thrower at the front lines of the tea party crusade. When tea party fave Rand Paul ran for the US Senate in Kentucky in 2010, McConnell backed an establishment Republican, Trey Grayson, in the GOP primary. Though McConnell proudly held the debt ceiling hostage in 2011, he was not a champion of shutting down the government in 2013 to force a repeal of Obamacare (or to win other concessions), à la Ted Cruz. And for years, McConnell has feuded with Jim DeMint, the onetime Republican senator who created the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has raised money for tea party GOPers taking on establishment Rs. (DeMint's group endorsed Bevin over McConnell.)
The ideological enmity McConnell has aroused on the right in his home state seems disproportionate. McConnell has done much for the conservative cause in Washington, yet apparently he is seen by many conservatives as a wimp, RINO, traitor, or all of the above. A recent poll found that only 39 percent of Bevin supporters would vote for McConnell in November and that 25 percent of Bevin supporters say they will stomp across party lines and vote for the Democratic candidate in the general election. It's hard to believe that a quarter of the folks supporting a tea party candidate will switch to Grimes in the fall. But what these numbers suggest is that tea party GOPers in Kentucky truly detest McConnell.
Are ideologically minded voters put off by McConnell because of him, not his positions? There is something that seems shifty about McConnell. He is an insider—a fellow who relishes cutting a complicated legislative deal on deadline and hobnobbing with K Street lobbyists—who tries and fails to come across as a one-of-us politician. He began his political career as a moderate Republican and veered right later on. He's not been able to integrate fully his conservative stances, his official actions, and whatever down-home appeal he can muster, as say Bob Dole did when he was a senator from Kansas.
But whatever McConnell lacks in the personality department, he compensates when it comes to political skills and ruthlessness. He won the Senate seat initially largely because his campaign consultant—a fellow named Roger Ailes—produced what has become an infamous television ad that showed bloodhounds searching for Huddleston. (The point: Huddleston had missed several Senate votes to do speaking gigs.) This time around, McConnell showed how calculating and unsentimental he could be by hiring Jesse Benton to run his reelection campaign. Benton managed Rand Paul's 2010 Senate campaign (which McConnell opposed) and then-Rep. Ron Paul's 2012 campaign. And the Paul camp from which Benton hailed has been allied with DeMint. (Benton told an Iowa activist he was "sort of holding my nose" to work for McConnell.) McConnell was embracing the enemy and slyly undermining the tea party assault against him.
Moreover, McConnell extracted an endorsement from Rand Paul. It wasn't much of an endorsement; Paul would not publicly say why he was backing McConnell. But McConnell had succeeded in preventing the forces that elected Paul from fully gathering behind Bevin, making sure there would be no full-scale tea party rebellion against him. When Amy Kremer last month resigned as chair of the Tea Party Express, she complained that the group was not working for Bevin in Kentucky. (Interesting side note: The woman who runs Rand Paul's political action committee is the daughter of the guy who runs the Tea Party Express.)
McConnell will do whatever it takes. A year ago—when actor Ashley Judd, a Democrat, was considering challenging McConnell—Mother Jonesrevealed a tape of a private McConnell campaign meeting in which the senator listened as his aides gleefully considered assaulting Judd for her past struggles with depression and for her religious views. He did not raise any objections. McConnell will run a smart and tough campaign against Grimes. He will valiantly defend his opposition to Obamacare in a state where nearly 400,000 residents have signed up for health care under the Affordable Care Act. He will try to shackle Grimes to the not-so-popular president. He will continue to dispatch his wife, Elaine Chao, a former labor secretary, to attest to his "love" for Kentucky—and to make McConnell seem amiable enough.
Grimes—a younger female candidate who comes from a long-established political family in the state—is frequently described by pundits as McConnell's most competitive foe in decades and a stronger challenger than Bevin. As can be expected in a race that will draw much national attention and oodles of out-of-state campaign cash on both sides, this contest will get ugly. But with the hard-nosed and cold-blooded McConnell in a corner, it is likely this election will exceed those expectations. When a candidate doesn't have to worry about his likability—and for McConnell it may be much too late for that—the incentive is to get nastier…and nastier.
This past weekend, former Vice President Dick Cheney made yet another media appearance to denounce President Barack Obama. But Cheney also used the opportunity to continue his feud with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.), who is mulling a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. On the friendly turf of Fox News Sunday, Cheney was asked about Paul's 2009 damning accusation—reported last month by Mother Jones—that Cheney used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse for the Iraq war so that Halliburton, the military contractor Cheney once led, would reap a large profit.
Well, before I ever took the job as vice president, I totally severed all my ties with Halliburton, at considerable financial cost. I had no relationship at all with the company throughout the time I was vice president. I didn't even talk to them. We kept a totally arm's length relationship. So he obviously is not familiar with the facts.
Paul's statement was harsh; he essentially had claimed that Cheney had betrayed the nation, exploiting a national horror and causing widespread death and destruction (including the deaths of thousands of Americans) to enrich his corporate cronies. When questioned by ABC News' Jon Karl about his Cheney comment, Paul insisted, "I'm not questioning Dick Cheney's motives." But that's precisely what Paul had done. And Paul had accomplished what not many could do: he evoked sympathy for the former vice president, who had led the Bush administration's campaign to rally public support for the Iraq war with false claims about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's ties to al Qaeda.
It's been easy for Cheney and his defenders to dismiss Paul's over-the-top, conspiracy-theory-like assertion. But on Fox News, the ex-veep, too, went too far. He maintained that he had no financial ties with Halliburton while he was George W. Bush's number-two and made a personal sacrifice by trading his CEO badge for a White House job. But that's not entirely accurate.
As Politifact.com noted a few years ago, when Cheney became vice president, he pocketed a $34 million payout from Halliburton. In fact, because he probably sold stock options at an opportune time, he profited enormously because the stock price was at a high:
It's not clear when Cheney sold his stock options, but it likely was within weeks of his being named to the ticket -- a period when Halliburton shares hit their 2000 peak, in the low-to-mid $50 range. By November 30, 2000, the stock had fallen to $33 a share. If he'd waited until then to sell, his payday would have been one-third lower, or roughly $14 million rather than $22 million.
Moreover, when Cheney was veep, he continued to receive deferred payments from Halliburton. In 2004, the New York Timesreported, "Mr. Cheney’s financial disclosure statements from 2001, 2002 and 2003 show that since becoming vice president-elect, he has received $1,997,525 from the company: $1,451,398 in a bonus deferred from 1999, the rest in deferred salary." And at that time, Cheney still held some stock options in the company.
As vice president, Cheney repeatedly contended he had no continuing relationship with Halliburton. In 2003, he declared, "I've severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interest. I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had, now, for over three years." But a report issued that year by the Congressional Research Service undermined Cheney's claim. It found that if a public official retained unexercised stock options and collected deferred salary—as Cheney did then—the official had "retained ties" to the company.
So when Cheney now says that he had nothing to do with Halliburton while he was vice-president, he is contradicted by the Congressional Research Service. Maybe he wasn't in contact with his old pals at the firm, but he continued to bank millions of dollars from the company as it obtained Iraq-related contracts from the US government.
In this ongoing scuffle pitting a GOP establishment heavy (who's a hawk) against a possible insurgent Republican presidential candidate (who's an intervention skeptic), both are wrong. When Paul assailed Cheney, he went too far and joined the ranks of the tin-foil-hats crowd—and then he tried to claim he had not said what he said. In defending himself, Cheney misrepresented his financial relationship with Halliburton. This mud-wrestling match has yet to produce a winner, but it is showing that each participant has a problem with accuracy.
By mounting a crusade to repeal Obamacare, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has betrayed the residents of Kentucky—so says the former Republican senator from the Bluegrass State who gave McConnell his first job in politics.
In 1968, the year after McConnell graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law, Marlow Cook, a moderate Republican running for an open US Senate seat in Kentucky, hired McConnell as his campaign's state youth chairman. McConnell, who had previously served two internships in Washington for Kentucky politicians, "fit in very well" with the campaign, Cook recalls, because he had been state president of the Young Ripon Society, an organization of moderate GOPers. And after Cook won the Senate seat, he offered McConnell a job as a legislative aide. McConnell moved to Washington with Cook, and as a top staffer in Cook's office he helped the senator with one of Cook's chief priorities: passing the Equal Rights Amendment. Cook was the lead Republican in the upper chamber pushing the ERA, a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. McConnell, Cook recounts, "worked and worked hard" to gain support for the measure and counter opposition—both inside and outside the Senate. "Phyllis Schlafly was one of the people we had to contend with, and he did," Cook notes, referring to the prominent conservative who led the anti-ERA effort. (In those days, McConnell also was skeptical about the Vietnam War and inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.)
The current outbreak of Benghazi Fever shows how strong the virus is—and that it is apparently immune to basic remedy.
On Friday, the Republicans went full Benghazi. House Speaker John Boehner announced he was setting up a special House committee to investigate the attack—that is, the Obama White House's response to it. Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chair of the House government oversight committee, subpoenaed Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before his committee on May 21 about the State Department's handling of GOP congressional inquiries about Benghazi. (Apparently, Issa is now probing a supposed cover-up of the original supposed cover-up.)
This week, Issa, Fox News, and other Benghazi-ists rushed to the ramparts once again, when a White House email was released showing that a top Obama aide had suggested that an administration spokeswoman defend the president's policy regarding the Arab Spring and the Muslim world following a series of anti-American attacks that included the September 11, 2012, assault on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi. As part of the interagency effort then underway to prep then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice for appearances on several Sunday morning talk shows—the exercise that produced the Benghazi talking points Republicans have been howling about ever since—Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, wrote that one goal for Rice was to "underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
This week, the top headlines on GOP Sen. Rand Paul's official website ostentatiously proclaim his support for Israel. On Monday, the lead item noted that Paul, a foreign intervention skeptic who's been accused of isolationism by the Dick Cheney/neocon wing of the Republican Party, intended to introduce legislation that would end US aid to the Palestinian government until it recognizes Israel's right to exist. The next day, Paul's website announced that the senator had introduced the "Stand with Israel Act of 2014," which would make all future aid to the Palestinians conditional on the new unity government—the result of the recent deal struck by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and does not recognize Israel, and Fatah, which is based in the West Bank—acknowledging the right of Israel to exist and to exist as a Jewish state. The bill was widely regarded as a brazen effort by Paul to get right—or somewhat less wrong—with the GOP's foreign policy mainstream. But the reporting on Paul's bear-hug of Israel left out a rather relevant fact: Not too long ago he was calling for cutting off funds to...Israel.
Just weeks after Paul was sworn in as a senator in early 2011, he proposed a budget plan that would end all US aid to Israel. The US supplies about $3 billion in military assistance to Israel annually. And Paul wanted to zero it out with all other foreign aid. He explained that he didn't have anything against Israel: "I'm not singling out Israel. I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don't have." He added, "I think they're an important ally, but I also think that their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world. Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don't think so."