Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a defiant message for liberal critics who’ve been blasting his stance on political spending and free speech: “They can [attack me] as long as they want to,” the senator told me in an interview this morning. “It actually makes my day.”
Since McConnell’s impassioned defense of the First Amendment at the American Enterprise Institute last Friday, liberal pundits and reporters have jumped on supposed inconsistencies in his record, dredged up 25-year-old statements, and accused him of selling out to various corporate interests.
One popular argument that’s made the rounds–from Norm Ornstein’s columns to Democratic Rep. Van Hollen’s talking points–is that McConnell was in favor of donor disclosure before he was against it. McConnell’s critics cite his 2010 interview with NBC’s Tim Russert, in which the senator said the following:
“We need to have real disclosure. And so what we ought to do is broaden the disclosure to include at least labor unions and tax-exempt business associations and trial lawyers so that you include the major political players in America. Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”
McConnell said the quote has been distorted by his critics, and his actual point was that the Democrat-supported campaign finance bill unfairly targeted Republican donors.
“I didn’t say I was in favor of [disclosure in that category]. I said if you’re going to go down that path, you can’t exempt everybody who favors Democrats and only cover those who tend to favor Republicans,” he told me. “That’s a misconstruction, a deliberate attempt to cloud what I was saying.”
McConnell added that it’s not necessarily disclosure that Democrats are seeking, but rules that would infringe on Republican supporters while carving out exceptions for Democratic allies.
“The so-called DISCLOSE Act conveniently carves out people most likely to be aligned with the left and only leaves covered those most likely to be aligned with the right,” he said. “Leading you to conclude, I think, that they really want to intimidate one side and leave the other side free to speak.”
And you can tell how critical this fight is to both sides by the number of crossbows aimed at McConnell this week. The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus dug back to 1987 — two years into McConnell’s first Senate term and the same year a new cartoon called The Simpsons fist appeared on the Tracy Ullman show — to uncover a quote from McConnell supporting limits on independent expenditures:
As it happens, 25 years ago this week a senator from Kentucky well versed in campaign-finance issues proposed a constitutional amendment to allow limits on independent expenditures.
“These are constitutional problems,” the senator said, “demanding constitutional answers.”
That was Republican Mitch McConnell, arch foe of campaign-finance regulation — or, as he would put it, staunch defender of the First Amendment.
The senator brushes this off as a quarter-century-old mistake, and maintains that his record been consistent for decades.
“I confess I made an error, but I corrected it in pretty short order, within six months of that mistake,” said McConnell. “But I think 25 years of being entirely consistent probably would rank me better than a lot of people I know in this line of work.”
McConnell also didn’t seem surprised by the pains some critics are going through to raise questions about his motives.
“All the Post was left with was trying to destroy my credibility, and it’s noteworthy that they had to go back a quarter of a century to find anything that’s been remotely inconsistent on this issue,” he said.
These political boxing matches obviously aren’t new for McConnell, and in a way, he seems to relish them.
“Look, I’ve been called Darth Vader. I’ve got a whole wall in my office full of cartoons attacking me on this issue,” he told me. “They’d love to shut me up, but I’m more used to their criticism than regular American citizens.”
McConnell said it’s these attacks on private American citizens that has driven him to fight against the DISCLOSE Act and similar legislation.
“They try to be involved in the political process and all of sudden they find themselves being chased by the IRS,” he said. “Or what happened in the case of this one fellow who contributed to Mitt Romney’s super PAC, having his divorce records gone through by somebody from the Obama campaign.”
“I mean, normal citizens are not used to this kind of behavior,” McConnell added. “I kind of have grown accustomed to it. I don’t particularly like it, but that’s the price of being in my line of work.”