The Iceman Cometh

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Fineman

He's cool, calm, and out to get Obama.

The blizzard had paralyzed Washington. So it was an apt day for a chat (by phone) with Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is working successfully--yet with surprisingly little personal notoriety--to bury the Barack Obama presidency in an unplowed cul-de-sac called the U.S. Senate. As the GOP leader there, McConnell strands Democrats in snowdrifts of parliamentary procedure and nasty talking points. "We are not just reflexively looking for areas where there will be no progress," he assured me. Having spent many years listening to McConnell, I can translate: he is reflexively looking for areas where there will be no progress.

In a city obsessed with visibility and celebrity, it largely goes overlooked that the plodding, unglamorous McConnell is Obama's most powerful foe--the man he must outmaneuver, or at least neutralize, if he wants to reach the sunny uplands of (bipartisan) legislative accomplishment, not to mention a second term in 2012. It will not be easy.

Charm won't work. McConnell's Southern courtliness is of a wintry variety, and his sense of partisanship is as unforgiving as it is relentless. His chilly demeanor is emblematic of the way Washington now operates. There was a time when personal gestures and ego stroking worked wonders, especially for a president, even of the other party. Not anymore. I asked McConnell what he thought of the president on a personal basis. I could hear the impatience on the other end of the line. "Oh, personally, I think he's fun to be around," McConnell said dryly, as though he was pointing out a weakness. "An A-plus personality."

Impervious to presidential flattery, McConnell also gains strength from a certain modesty of ambition. True, he likes getting his name on buildings back home in Louisville (and expertly manipulates the earmark process to do so), but by Washington standards he doesn't care much about fame--or higher office. "It's better not to be running for president when you are in this job," he said. "It is such a distraction if you're worried about building a national constituency." Thus freed, he ranges unabashedly over the fundraising fields, championing free-speech rights for corporate treasuries.

His overriding strategic aim is to avoid mass defections on any issue in his now 41-seat minority. …