Mitch McConnell Has Long Argued For More Money In Politics Senate Majority Leader McConnell is one of the few politicians who argues for more money in politics. His stance led to a decades-long fight with Sen. John McCain, who pushed for donation limits.
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Mitch McConnell Has Long Argued For More Money In Politics

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Mitch McConnell Has Long Argued For More Money In Politics

Mitch McConnell Has Long Argued For More Money In Politics

Mitch McConnell Has Long Argued For More Money In Politics

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/747368694/747368695" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Senate Majority Leader McConnell is one of the few politicians who argues for more money in politics. His stance led to a decades-long fight with Sen. John McCain, who pushed for donation limits.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Back in the early 1970s, Mitch McConnell practiced law and taught a college course on political science in Louisville, Ky. John Cheves, a reporter with The Lexington Herald-Leader told us about one of McConnell's most memorable lessons.

JOHN CHEVES: McConnell went to the front of the classroom, and he wrote on the chalkboard. The three things you need to succeed in politics and to build a political party - money, money, money.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That was before the Kentucky Republican won his seat in the U.S. Senate, before he became Senate majority leader. But McConnell has never strayed from his belief that there should be more money in politics, not less. His stance led to a decades-long fight with another veteran Republican senator. From NPR's Embedded podcast, Tom Dreisbach has the story.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: A lot of politicians complain about fundraising. But Mitch McConnell has said the reason politicians like him spend so much time asking for money is simple.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: We do it because we'd like to win - because we'd like to win. There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to win.

DREISBACH: That was McConnell in 1990. And in his view, spending money on politics is a fundamental First Amendment right. The thinking goes, you can't pay for an ad or a flyer without money. So if the government limits how much can be spent on politics or who can spend it, that goes against the Constitution. But one fellow Republican did not agree.

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JOHN MCCAIN: There's too much money washing around. And this money makes good people do bad things and bad people do worse things.

DREISBACH: Arizona Senator John McCain argued for tough limits on money in politics to stop corruption.

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MCCAIN: And there'll be more scandals and more indictments and more scandals and more indictments and more people go to prison until we clean up this system.

DREISBACH: But McConnell defended the ever-increasing amount of money pouring into political races.

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MCCONNELL: Where did this notion get going that we were spending too much in campaigns? Compared to what?

DREISBACH: For literally decades, McConnell has argued that Americans spend more on things at the grocery store than we do on politics.

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MCCONNELL: Americans spent more on potato chips than they did on politics.

Spent about what the American public spent in one year on bubble gum...

Spend on bubble gum...

Bubble gum...

Bottle of water.

Bottle of water.

Cosmetics.

Yogurt.

Alcoholic beverages, Kibbles 'n Bits ads - so when we talk about spending, we talk about it compared to what?

DREISBACH: Basically every year in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, McConnell successfully blocked tough campaign finance regulations.

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MCCONNELL: This effort to put the government in charge of political discussion is not going to pass now. It's not going to pass tomorrow. It's not going to pass ever.

DREISBACH: And then John McCain took on tobacco, leading to a kind of proxy war with McConnell over campaign finance.

In McConnell's home state, Kentucky, tens of thousands of people grew tobacco. And the industry had made it a priority to help McConnell win elections. Over his career, McConnell has received more than $600,000 in campaign contributions from tobacco interests. And according to internal tobacco industry documents which were released in lawsuits, McConnell gave Senate speeches that were written nearly word-for-word by tobacco industry lobbyists. For years, he also cast doubt on the health dangers of secondhand smoking.

In response to NPR, McConnell said, quote, "I fought hard for my constituency in that period, doing everything that I could to defend the livelihood of a huge number of people."

And in 1998, John McCain introduced a bill to reduce teen smoking and tightly regulate the industry.

MATT MYERS: This was a shot to do something that literally could save millions of lives.

DREISBACH: This is Matt Myers of The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He worked with McCain on the bill. McConnell opposed the bill, and the industry attacked it with a massive ad campaign. They argued that raising the price of cigarettes to pay for public health was really just a tax on smokers.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Contact your senators now, and tell them you oppose the McCain tobacco tax.

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MCCAIN: It's really a question of whether we believe an industry should be allowed to lie to Congress and the American people and get away with it...

DREISBACH: Here's McCain on the Senate floor.

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MCCAIN: ...Whether an industry can pay billions of dollars in campaign contributions for protection against their misdeeds and get away with it.

DREISBACH: In the end, the bill narrowly failed in the Senate. Then, within days of the vote, The Wall Street Journal reported this. On the day of the vote, McConnell had told other Republican senators that anyone who voted against the bill would get support from the tobacco industry in their re-election campaigns in the form of ads. Here's Matt Myers.

MYERS: I thought it had moved beyond the line to as close to an outright bribe as you could find.

DREISBACH: McConnell said he was being smeared and that he was just advocating for his state.

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MCCONNELL: In my state, we have 60,000 tobacco growers. I thought the bill was a horrible bill. And all I said to my colleagues was a statement of the obvious, which is the companies were going to continue to express themselves that had been in...

DREISBACH: Just a few months after McConnell helped defeat the tobacco bill, McConnell was asking for a major political donation from at least one tobacco company. In one internal tobacco industry email, lobbyists for a tobacco company said that McConnell asked for $200,000 in soft money, a legal contribution to the Republican Party. Mitch McConnell did not answer our questions about this email. But he did tell NPR, quote, "there was nobody not fighting for tobacco in Kentucky in that era - nobody." McConnell also pointed out that he is currently pushing a bill to raise the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: The senator from Arizona, I see, is on the floor. And...

DREISBACH: A year after the tobacco bill, in 1999, McConnell was again debating McCain on the Senate floor about campaign finance. At the time, McConnell kept arguing to McCain - if there's really so much corruption in this Senate, name names.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: And so I ask the senator from Arizona, how can there be corruption if no one is corrupt? I mean, that's like saying the gang is corrupt but none of the gangsters are.

DREISBACH: McCain said that's not the point; it's the system that's the problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCAIN: I refuse and would not, in any way, say that any individual or person is guilty of corruption in a specific way...

DREISBACH: But McConnell kept asking again and again - who exactly is corrupt? And eventually, McCain reached a breaking point, and he brought up that story about what happened right before the tobacco vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCAIN: I was in the Republican caucus when a certain senator stood up and said, it's OK for you to vote against the tobacco bill because the tobacco companies will run ads in our favor. I yield the floor.

AL CROSS: It's probably the starkest example of the different approach that McCain and McConnell took to money in politics.

DREISBACH: This is Al Cross, a Kentucky-based political columnist who has covered McConnell for decades.

CROSS: McConnell sees that sort of money as the exercise of free speech and, for the Republican caucus at least, a device that helps them remain in power.

DREISBACH: And that's worth it to him, the remaining in power, despite whatever effects the money might have.

CROSS: I think the effects of money are a rather diffuse thing to analyze. You're either in power or you're not.

DREISBACH: In other words, winning is not always pretty. Democracy is messy. But if you lose, you don't get to accomplish anything.

McCain did eventually pass a campaign finance law. But in 2010, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, allowed unlimited corporate and union spending on elections. Mitch McConnell called it a terrific decision.

And today, regardless of where they stand, McConnell's critics and allies agree. His side of the argument, at least for now, has won out. Many expect that all the spending by campaigns, superPACs and other outside groups will make the 2020 election the most expensive in history.

Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

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