Commentary Magazine


Topic: donor disclosure

McConnell Defends Record Consistency

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?”

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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.”

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Mocking Conservative Victims of Violence

The cynicism of the Washington, D.C., press toward national politics has become so profound that when a politician gives a detailed speech about a serious issue with immediate ramifications, the journalists splashing around in the kiddy pool of Beltway conventional wisdom don’t know how to react. Such was the case on Friday when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a thorough indictment of the Democratic Party’s attempts to bully, punish, and silence its political opponents.

The speech, delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, was more than 4,000 words long, yet Politico’s write-up of it found the one word it wanted–Koch–and repeated it over and over as if that was the point of the speech. Yet Politico isn’t the only outlet that assumes any time a Republican defends free speech he is covering for moneyed interests. Fred Hiatt’s latest column in the Washington Post is a disturbing example of what free speech advocates are up against when it comes to a national media obsessed with smearing conservatives instead of doing its job.

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The cynicism of the Washington, D.C., press toward national politics has become so profound that when a politician gives a detailed speech about a serious issue with immediate ramifications, the journalists splashing around in the kiddy pool of Beltway conventional wisdom don’t know how to react. Such was the case on Friday when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a thorough indictment of the Democratic Party’s attempts to bully, punish, and silence its political opponents.

The speech, delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, was more than 4,000 words long, yet Politico’s write-up of it found the one word it wanted–Koch–and repeated it over and over as if that was the point of the speech. Yet Politico isn’t the only outlet that assumes any time a Republican defends free speech he is covering for moneyed interests. Fred Hiatt’s latest column in the Washington Post is a disturbing example of what free speech advocates are up against when it comes to a national media obsessed with smearing conservatives instead of doing its job.

McConnell said he favors donor disclosure for those who give to candidates and parties–a position he has held consistently. He also said everyone should have to play by the same rules with regard to disclosure, rather than allow those in power to exempt their donors while singling out those of their opponents. But Hiatt, attempting to peer into the dark Republican soul of his imagined adversaries, has divined what McConnell and the Republicans really want:

They want unlimited contributions, in secret.

“Republicans are in favor of disclosure,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in 2000 on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” making clear he was including issue advocacy — campaign ads with a thin veil of policy — as well as candidate spending. “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”

That first sentence is undone by McConnell’s own speech. But what about that second part–is that the Beltway’s favorite piece of evidence, the smoking gun of hypocrisy?

No, of course not. Hiatt wants Republicans to drop their opposition to the DISCLOSE Act, which would protect liberal interest groups while removing protections from conservative groups. Here’s McConnell in his own words:

This is the Democrats’ legislative response to Citizens United, in which the Supreme Court correctly ruled that Congress may not ban political speech based on the identity of the speaker. The DISCLOSE Act aims to get around this ruling by compelling certain targeted groups to disclose the names of their donors, while excluding others, such as unions, from doing the same….

Because if disclosure is forced upon some but not all, it’s not an act of good government, it’s a political weapon. And that’s precisely what those who are pushing this legislation have in mind. This is nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies. And that should concern every one of us.

Hiatt says nothing has changed except an influx of money to the GOP, suggesting that McConnell has been bought off by, I don’t know, the infamous Free Speech Lobby? But then Hiatt moves on to defending the indefensible. Part of McConnell’s speech was calling attention to the strategy of liberal groups, sometimes aided by government agencies such as the IRS, of intimidating donors to conservative grassroots causes.

Hiatt, in the most shameful sentence of a shameful column, writes off these intimidation tactics as conservatives merely “being called mean names by liberals.” But McConnell reminded his audience that conservatives have received death threats (I know private citizens personally who have been subjected to this), had their private information made public, had their children harassed by liberal bloggers, and have been the victims of a new liberal tactic called SWATting, in which a liberal blogger or activist will make a fake 9-1-1 call reporting a murder at the house of his target, to which law enforcement (often SWAT teams) will show up with guns out ready for a firefight.

Hiatt presumably does not need the danger of this explained to him, nor would he need a primer on why death threats are not merely “mean things” people say. He just doesn’t care. But he should at least stop dismissing acts of violence and mocking the victims.

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