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The center of Mitch McConnell’s legacy-building

Political Theater podcast, Episode 103

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uses the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center to hold discussions with his allies, adversaries and other dignitaries. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uses the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center to hold discussions with his allies, adversaries and other dignitaries. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not shy about using his namesake McConnell Center at the University of Louisville as a platform for showcasing his allies, adversaries and his own ability to steer the national conversation.

Just this week, Kentucky’s senior senator and proud Louisville alumnus spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo, currently enmeshed in key elements of the Ukraine saga and the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump, is McConnell’s preferred candidate to run for Senate in Kansas, where GOP Sen. Pat Roberts is retiring.

So McConnell himself discussed foreign affairs with Pompeo, who was a Kansas congressman and CIA director before his current gig.

Speaking of CIA directors, another somewhat recent guest at the McConnell Center was the current agency head, Gina Haspel. She spoke at the center on Sept. 24, 2018, just a few months after a contentious confirmation process that brought up tough questions about her involvement with the CIA’s notorious torture program.

(Programming note: Our recent podcast about the movie “The Report,” which deals with the torture program, was a barn burner with director Scott Burns and Senate Intelligence staffer Daniel Jones. Check it out!)

So Haspel got to discuss her priorities for the CIA, like the interdiction of opioids, a big issue in Kentucky with its overdose rates a tragic backdrop, in a friendly setting after McConnell helped shepherd her confirmation.

And speaking of shepherding a confirmation, Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch dropped in on the McConnell Center back in September 2017, just a few months after his own confirmation to the high court.

Gorsuch’s elevation to the Supreme Court provides the most vivid example of McConnell’s power as Senate leader.

After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, McConnell defied tradition and refused so much as a hearing for President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia: Merrick G. Garland.

After Trump nominated Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s seat, McConnell set a new Senate precedent by doing away with the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees to ensure Gorsuch’s confirmation on a nearly party-line vote.

Sometimes the center’s nonpartisan bona fides create moments that defy political conventional wisdom.

Among the McConnell center’s Democratic guests for the speaker series are the men with whom he jousts on the floor the most: current Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer and his predecessor, Harry Reid.

There are also Democrats who end up running on a national ticket. Joe Biden, the former vice president and McConnell’s longtime Senate colleague, who is making a run for the presidency now.

He came by in February 2011, just months before helping McConnell avert a catastrophic default on the national debt, and a little over a year before he ran for reelection as veep with Obama.

The year before that, Hillary Clinton swung by. She was secretary of State then, two years removed from a presidential primary loss to Obama and six years out from her own general election loss to Trump.

According to CQ Roll Call senior staff writer Niels Lesniewski, our point man on all things McConnell, the center’s nearly 30-year history has provided the majority leader with a real-time academic base to cement his legacy, something unique in American politics.

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