The GOP Senator Barack Obama Fears Most

The blizzard had paralyzed Washington. So it was an apt day for a chat (by phone) with Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is working successfully—yet with surprisingly little personal notoriety—to bury the Barack Obama presidency in an unplowed cul-de-sac called the U.S. Senate. As the GOP leader there, McConnell strands Democrats in snowdrifts of parliamentary procedure and nasty talking points. "We are not just reflexively looking for areas where there will be no progress," he assured me. Having spent many years listening to McConnell, I can translate: he is reflexively looking for areas where there will be no progress.

In a city obsessed with visibility and celebrity, it largely goes overlooked that the plodding, unglamorous McConnell is Obama's most powerful foe—the man he must outmaneuver, or at least neutralize, if he wants to reach the sunny uplands of (bipartisan) legislative accomplishment, not to mention a second term in 2012. It will not be easy.

Charm won't work. McConnell's Southern courtliness is of a wintry variety, and his sense of partisanship is as unforgiving as it is relentless. His chilly demeanor is emblematic of the way Washington now operates. There was a time when personal gestures and ego stroking worked wonders, especially for a president, even of the other party. Not anymore. I asked McConnell what he thought of the president on a personal basis. I could hear the impatience on the other end of the line. "Oh, personally, I think he's fun to be around," McConnell said dryly, as though he was pointing out a weakness. "An A-plus personality."

Impervious to presidential flattery, McConnell also gains strength from a certain modesty of ambition. True, he likes getting his name on buildings back home in Louisville (and expertly manipulates the earmark process to do so), but by Washington standards he doesn't care much about fame—or higher office. "It's better not to be running for president when you are in this job," he said. "It is such a distraction if you're worried about building a national constituency." Thus freed, he ranges unabashedly over the fundraising fields, championing free-speech rights for corporate treasuries.

His overriding strategic aim is to avoid mass defections on any issue in his now 41-seat minority. Crucially, the White House failed to see this as it lobbied for health care. Without a flock of Republicans abandoning the GOP on the issue, it was a fool's errand to try to peel away an Olympia Snowe. McConnell understood that; the president has since rued privately that he and his own aides did not.

Even at his age and station, McConnell hasn't lost the central reason for his success: an unrivaled instinct for the modern, Southern-based politics of cultural resentment. His roots are in a modest, middle-class part of South Louisville. Always the student-body president, he made up in hard work what he lacked in connections. He grew up in a time and a place suffused with Barry Goldwater's libertarianism, George Wallace's populist anger, and Richard Nixon's bare-knuckle tactics. He took aim at Kentucky's old Democratic hegemony and demolished it. Government wasn't the answer; it was the enemy, because the downtown elites ran it.

Circumstances change, but not the basic urge, which these days means decrying what he sees as the cultural blindness and effete concerns of Obama and his minions. McConnell's next mark: Attorney General Eric Holder, and his plan to conduct trials of terror suspects in federal courts. Although the Bush administration did precisely that (and McConnell didn't complain at the time), the senator now wants to ban use of federal funds for such trials. He wants all interrogations handled by the Pentagon and CIA, not the Department of Justice, and all the trials to be conducted by military commissions, preferably sitting in Guantánamo, the closure of which he steadfastly opposed. McConnell is all but daring Obama to defend Holder and the federal trials: in other words, to defend the idea that foreign terror suspects deserve Miranda rights. There may be legitimate security concerns, but it also repeats the "soft on crime" attack that the GOP has used since Nixon's day. "The way to handle the war on terror is not to put the attorney general in charge," McConnell declared.

"This administration is going to learn this lesson the slow and hard way," he warned. "There isn't going to be a community in America that will be willing to have these trials." McConnell is eager for a showdown. If Obama wants money for those federal-court proceedings, let him ask. The senator will take the call, blizzard or no. But the conversation will be frosty.

Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.