There has never been a politician more consistently cynical than Mitch McConnell. He’s the guy who wrote about how moved he was to witness the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965—as a young aide to Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper—and then blocked efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act after it was eviscerated by his conservative allies on the US Supreme Court. He’s the guy who blocked President Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court because, he said, the Senate shouldn’t confirm new justices in election years—and then rushed through the confirmation of right-wing Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the election year of 2020. And, of course, he’s the guy who this year condemned President Trump’s incitement of insurrection right after leading Senate Republicans in blocking accountability for, that’s right, President Trump’s incitement of insurrection.
But the most jaw-droppingly cynical move McConnell has ever made came this week, when the Senate minority leader dragged himself up to the bully pulpit to tell corporate CEOs to keep quiet about political issues—unless they’re bribing him to do their bidding.
The senator’s surreal show of hypocrisy came after Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Major League Baseball, and other multinational firms denounced the assault by Georgia Republican officials on voting rights in what has become the country’s most contentious swing state.
“My advice to the corporate CEOs of America is to stay out of politics. Don’t pick sides in these big fights,” complained McConnell, summoning up his most menacing mumble.
Warning that Big Business support for democracy could usher in an era of “woke alternative government,” McConnell grumbled that multinational corporations might become “a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”
McConnell’s fretting about revolutionary CEOs was laughable on its face.
But what provoked guffaws was the notion that the senator from Kentucky really wanted CEOs to “stay out of politics.”
No one in the history of American electioneering—with the possible exception of Mark Hanna, who organized the robber barons of the Gilded Age to support the plutocratic presidential bid of Republican William McKinley over that of Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan in 1896—has worked as hard as Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. to get CEOs into politics.
As The Washington Post explained a quarter-century ago, when McConnell was leading the fight against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, “He loves money, perhaps more than any other politician on Capitol Hill. He likes to raise it and he likes to spend it. It’s what made him the father of the modern-day Republican Party in Kentucky, and it’s what he sees as the key to expanding influence for the GOP in Washington.” Over the ensuing years, McConnell made himself the champion of no-holds-barred quid pro quo politics. When billionaires, investors, and CEOs opened their checkbooks, the most transactional member of the Senate was all ears.
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McConnell’s 2020 reelection run was funded by $4,331,604 in contributions from business-tied political action committees and millions more in contributions from check writers who had corporate connections: $1,878,257 from “real estate” donors, $1,547,238 from “Securities & Investment” donors, $710,017 from “Insurance” donors, $489,915 from “Oil and Gas” donors, $476,367 from “Pharmaceutical/Health Products” donors, $663,632 from givers who fessed up to being lobbyists and—my favorite on the Open Secrets list—$602,386 from folks who identified as “Misc. Finance.”
Throughout a Senate career that has crossed more than a third of a century, McConnell has raised tens of millions for himself and for his party’s candidates from corporate benefactors. Indeed, at a recent lunch with Republican senators, the minority leader reportedly handed out cards to colleagues announcing that the Senate Republican super PAC he operates had collected “Total: $612+ million” and “In 3 cycles: nearly $1 billion.”
McConnell did not raise that money because he is a likable fellow. He raised it because he’s a cutthroat powerbroker who delivers for donors—defining the modern Republican Party as an extension of Wall Street and the so-called “donor class.”
When he was battling with McConnell over campaign finance reform, the late Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that the approach favored by his Republican colleague was “a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion.” McConnell’s response then, and now, has been to claim that his CEO donors have a First Amendment right to influence politics and governance because “money is speech.”
But the money McConnell has collected over the years was never really given to express an opinion. It was given to achieve a result. As McCain’s ally in those campaign finance reform fights, former US senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), says, “An opaque system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion is not an outrageous way to characterize the state of our nation’s federal campaign finance laws.” Indeed, under McConnell’s leadership, Feingold argues, “the Republicans’ only goal with campaign finance is opening the floodgates as wide as they possibly will go.”
McConnell justified his orgy of transactional politics with pious defenses of corporate speech.
Yet, when corporations actually did speak in recent weeks about democracy in Georgia—not with dark-money donations but in the clear light of day—McConnell objected. He even tried to make a distinction between giving campaign cash and taking a stand on behalf of voting rights. “I’m not talking about political contributions,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m talking about taking a position on a highly incendiary issue like this and punishing a community or a state because you don’t like a particular law they passed. I just think it’s stupid.”
That was such a bad argument that McConnell acknowledged on Wednesday, “I didn’t say that very artfully yesterday.”
“Certainly,” he said, corporations are “entitled to be involved in politics. They are.”
His concern, claimed the minority leader, was simply that “they didn’t read the darn bill.”
The corporate interests that objected to Georgia’s assault on voting rights had, of course, read the bill. They had also read the political tea leaves. They knew that it made sense to join with civil rights campaigners, democracy defenders, and everyone else who has recognized the Republican legislation as a “new Jim Crow” assault on the franchise that seeks to make it harder for people of color to cast ballots.
As is so often the case with McConnell, it was necessary this week to read around the doublespeak in order to get to his actual point: The minority leader has a problem with CEOs who openly and publicly object to the enactment of noxious legislation in Georgia.
But McConnell has no problem with CEOs that give millions of dollars to his campaigns and then use the access they have purchased to further the enactment of noxious legislation in Washington.