After 30 years in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has finally reached the job he's always wanted: leader of the Republican majority. Most Democrats have scorned him since he declared, as minority leader, his goal of making President Barack Obama "a one-term president."
Now he is Obama's ally as both men push for expanded trade. On the eve of Senate debate on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, he sat down with me in his hideaway office to discuss the "out-of-body experience" of fighting alongside a Democratic president. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: What happens in a Senate hideaway? Nothing sneaky—this is not where secret trade deal gets cut?
MCCONNELL: Well, it's an extra office in the Capitol. And we dole them out on a seniority basis. I expect the hideaway term comes from times when there was something sneaky goin' on. Those were the good old days. (LAUGHTER)
HARWOOD: President Obama's gotten some grief for not being more sociable with members of Congress. Had he had a bourbon with you once or 10 times, would that make any difference to how you guys actually relate?
MCCONNELL: No. I think it's all good stuff for you all to write. But it has no effect on policy. The reason we haven't done more things together is 'cause we don't agree on much. It's nice to have social occasions, but we don't all hate each other anyway. It wouldn't make any difference. Look, it's a business.
HARWOOD: President Obama is exceptionally unpopular in your party. I wonder whether that is going to make it difficult either in the Senate or in the House for some of your members who might otherwise go along be reluctant with this trade deal because it's Obama.
MCCONNELL: I don't think so. That's almost a nonfactor in the Senate. This is a six-year bill. So what I've said to my members, if we want the next Republican president, who we will hope will be sworn in less than two years from now, to have a chance to do trade agreements with the rest of the world, this bill is about that president as well as this one.
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HARWOOD: Democrats say "there are a lot of Republicans who privately agree with us on some of these high-profile fights, but they're scared of the tea party. Is trade a case in reverse for Democrats—many agree with you, agree with President Obama but they're scared of the base?
MCCONNELL: The Obama years are coming to an end. When you have the White House with your party, it tends to diminish the differences. When you don't have the White House, or the president's on the way out, things tend to be more spirited. So now the action is on the Democratic side. And you are seeing that on trade. You've got the energy of the Elizabeth Warren faction kind of driving the agenda, pulling Hillary Clinton further to the left. I want to compliment that president on the way he took on the base, took on Elizabeth Warren, took on the labor unions. The biggest divisions these days are not among Republicans but among Democrats.
HARWOOD: You mention Hillary Clinton. Is it not perfectly obvious to you that, whatever she says now, she is for this deal having promoted it as secretary of state?
MCCONNELL: I don't know what she really thinks. All I care about is where she is. She's dodging it so far, isn't she?
HARWOOD: You've seen a lot of shooting stars come into the Congress. How would you assess the juice that Elizabeth Warren has around this place right now—her ability to rally support against this deal in the Senate, maybe in the House?
MCCONNELL: Well, we're going to find out. She and her allies have doubled down to try to beat this trade agreement. They are allies with the current Democratic leader and the next Democratic leader. It's an interesting challenge for us. She's a very effective spokesman for a very far-left position.
HARWOOD: How much does it complicate your life to have four members of your caucus running for president right now?
MCCONNELL: It's manageable. Sometimes we have to try and schedule around people's travel plans. But ambition in the Senate is not unheard of, and my job as majority leader is to try to help all my members realize their aspirations. And frequently they're in conflict with each other.
HARWOOD: There are a lot of Democrats who think that President Obama has gotten a raw deal from opponents because he's the first black president.
MCCONNELL: The Democrats have done a good job of spreading that. They conveniently overlook the fact that they never got accused of racism when they voted against Condoleezza Rice or Janice Rogers Brown. This is sort of ridiculous in this day and age to be playing the race card. It's just absurd. People are now being judged by their record.
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HARWOOD: The nonwhite portion of the electorate is growing very rapidly, and it's lopsidedly for the other party. How do you change that? Isn't that an argument for, "Hey, Congress—move on a first step, which is immigration reform?"
MCCONNELL: You just keep demonstrating your openness and hope that there are areas that you can find agreement. We have policies that make sense. There are at least two Republican candidates for president who are fluent in Spanish. There's a Hispanic governor, a Republican in Nevada, Republican in New Mexico. We are an increasingly diverse party. You have to have role models who don't believe like Democrats but who make a convincing case.
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HARWOOD: How did you feel when you saw Jon Stewart over and over portray you as a turtle on "The Daily Show?" Hurt your feelings?
MCCONNELL: I loved it. I ended up carrying 110 out of 120 counties. I won by 15 points. And I beat a 35-year-old woman among women. I've been elected to the position I hold now by my colleagues unanimously multiple times. It's nice to be approved by the people that count.