Larry Keeling: Hoist on his own dollar sign, McConnell feeling sting of unlimited political money

Herald-leader columnistNovember 3, 2013 

How long can the political marriage of convenience between Kentucky's senators Mitch McConnell, left, and Rand Paul last?

FRANKFORT — In early October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of the "aggregate" limits on campaign contributions Congress enacted post-Watergate.

Don't start yawning yet because I'm not going to bore you with the details of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission or of campaign finance laws. The pros and cons of those issues can be argued another day.

Today's discussion involves irony, chickens coming home to roost and the sometimes transitory nature of those "strange bedfellows" relationships crafted by politics. You may find this discussion boring, too, but not because it gets bogged down in legalese and statutory minutia.

I kicked the discussion off with a mention of McCutcheon solely to note that one of the lawyers addressing the court on the matter represented Kentucky's own U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who, although not a party to the case, was allowed to file a "friend of the court" brief arguing for the elimination of all campaign contribution limits, individual as well as aggregate.

Once again, we'll skip the details of the arguments and the law. They're not relevant. What is relevant is that McConnell's desire to rid this nation of the pestilence of contribution limits is the logical next step in his longtime campaign to turn the American political process into the ultimate auction. (An auction where, if you have to ask what the opening bid will be, you don't have it — and probably never will.)

McConnell may zig and zag with the political winds at other times, but he has been remarkably consistent on the subject of campaign finance. Well, almost. There is the 180 he pulled on disclosure — praising it as the holy grail of alternatives to contribution limits throughout the many years the limits remained in place, damning it as a devilish attack on free speech as soon as the Supreme Court started casting limits by the wayside.

But when it comes to limits themselves, whether on spending or contributions, McConnell has not wavered. He was agin 'em back when, he's agin 'em now and he presumably will be agin 'em in the future. After all, money equates to free speech; corporations and other moneyed organizations are people, too; and the people's (corporations and other moneyed organizations included) right to speak (spend money on buying political outcomes) must remain unfettered, even by disclosure.

Enough context. Let's get to the irony, chickens, etc.

As the Herald-Leader's Sam Youngman reported Tuesday, McConnell is now leading other mainstream Republican senators in waging war against the folks funding Tea Party challengers in Republican Senate primaries.

Apparently, the thinking is that, if McConnell and other senators facing primary challenges can beat their opponents badly enough, they can turn back the Tea Party tide, neuter the folks funding the movement and recapture control of the Republican Party, thereby saving it from a permanent minority status.

Again, although it promises to have considerable entertainment value in the future, the details of this coming war, the tactics and strategy each side hopes to employ and even the odds for and against each side are irrelevant at the moment.

What is relevant is that McConnell has found it necessary to declare war against a group of organizations (including the Senate Conservatives Fund founded by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who endorsed Tea Party darling Rand Paul against McConnell protégé Trey Grayson in Kentucky's 2010 Republican Senate primary) that are now using the campaign finance playing field McConnell has long championed against him.

"Cluck! Cluck!" strikes the appropriate ironic note here.

What is also relevant is that, immediately after Paul beat Grayson in the 2010 primary, McConnell began cuddling up to the Tea Party crowd, formed an "odd couple" alliance with Paul and even hired Paul's nephew and 2010 campaign manager Jesse Benton as his own 2014 campaign manager. McConnell retained Benton even after published reports that Benton told a friend, "I'm sorta holding my nose for two years" working for the McConnell campaign because it could help Paul in a possible 2016 presidential bid.

Despite his recent comments about broadening the party's base, Paul's only hope of winning the 2016 Republican presidential nod is continued strong support from the Tea Party. Now that McConnell has declared war on the Tea Party's financial benefactors, you have to wonder if a couple of Kentucky's strange political bedfellows might soon split the blanket.

The John Arnold Committee (I can't think of a better name for the state House panel looking into allegations the former Democratic representative from Sturgis sexually harassed legislative staffers) cancelled a scheduled Oct. 23 meeting, postponed a scheduled Oct. 30 meeting until Nov. 1 and then postponed the Nov. 1 meeting indefinitely.

The panel's odds in the snail race I mentioned in a previous column are now in double digits.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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