Sam Youngman

In broken Washington, a Kentucky power couple emerges

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell

There were a few awkward chuckles as Sen. Rand Paul took a sip of coffee and briefly pondered the question before him: Had Mitch McConnell become a mentor to the freshman senator?

"Um, you know, Thoreau is a mentor," Paul said last spring at a breakfast with reporters, offering a rare chuckle himself. "When we call people a mentor, I think that overstates. I mean we're colleagues. And I do respect him, and he's been here a long time."

That tepid endorsement — the kind that might have made McConnell want to go to the woods and not to "live deliberately" — came in April, just after Paul's popularity was in full bloom following his 13-hour filibuster on domestic drone use.

Six months later, amid the federal government shutdown, Paul no longer is chuckling. He and McConnell are a team, and they have each others' backs.

There was no mention of Thoreau in the video of Paul talking to McConnell on a live microphone about his belief that Republicans will "win" the public opinion battle over the shutdown.

Instead, it became clear the two have moved well past a transactional relationship with NBA-like trades (Team Rand sends campaign manager Jesse Benton to Team Mitch for a player-to-be-named-later). They now genuinely look to each other as partners, as if starring in the oddest, most boring buddy-cop movie ever made.

In separate interviews almost two weeks apart, both men, unprompted, heaped praise on the other, saying the same thing: Two prominent national voices from the Bluegrass is "good for Kentucky."

"My junior colleague has become a national figure in record time," McConnell told the Lexington Herald-Leader last week. "I don't think there's a time in the history of our state we've had two more influential senators than we do right now. And I think that's good for Kentucky."

Folks who know both men say they are sitting together the majority of the time when Republican senators meet Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for lunch in the Lyndon B. Johnson room just off the Senate floor.

When McConnell sees a way Paul can work to achieve his goal of broadening his appeal beyond the Tea Party that elected him, in preparation for a White House run, he lets the junior senator know. When Paul sees McConnell's right flank exposed ahead of the senior senator's primary in May, he lets McConnell know.

They might not be the dynamic duo, but they certainly are stronger together than they were alone.

McConnell is in trouble in his campaign for reelection next year, and he knows it.

Paul needs establishment Republican support or he is doomed to the same fringe candidate classification that haunted his father in his bids for the presidency. And he knows it.

When Kentucky voters go to the polls next spring to vote in the primaries, it will have been four years since Paul flipped McConnell on his ear by beating McConnell's hand-picked successor to Sen. Jim Bunning.

And while McConnell moved fast publicly to embrace the new Republican candidate, it was clear that both men saw the other as aggravating assets more than colleagues.

It's far from clear if either can deliver what the other needs. In fact, what has become clear at this point is there are risks that come with their new partnership.

Paul has taken a lot of heat from his base for endorsing McConnell, support that, while far from inspiring, kept many would-be Republican challengers to McConnell sitting on the sideline. While Paul has said nice things about McConnell's primary challenger, Matt Bevin, he certainly isn't sharing his father's "money bombs," which recent third-quarter financial reports show Bevin could have desperately used.

And McConnell has set himself up to be characterized as a senator of political convenience over conviction after following Paul's lead in voting against a resolution that would have allowed President Barack Obama to strike Syria.

It's true that McConnell can't put Paul in the White House. And Paul can't make Kentuckians give McConnell another six years in the Senate next November.

But their newfound allegiance should serve notice to doubters of both men. Both have records — one much longer than the other — of brilliant political tactical thinking. Both have defied critics and conventional wisdom, and won when they weren't supposed to. Both now see the other as an ally, not a necessary evil.

If they go down, they might go down together. If they are victorious, the other figures to win a prominent spot in the winner's election night speech.

Time will tell just how much — if at all — they can boost each other. They might not win anything. But they are both stronger having won each other's respect.

When asked Friday if he thought Paul would make a good president, McConnell didn't roll his eyes as he might have four years ago.

Instead the senior senator smiled.

"I'm gonna have more to say about that later," McConnell said.

It's a safe bet that when later comes, McConnell won't mention Thoreau.

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