Media

How Not to Interview Mitch McConnell

During this critical election year, TV interviewers have to put politicians' feet to the fire, asking tough questions and demanding honest answers.

How Not to Interview Mitch McConnell

A screenshot from Charlie Rose's June 1, 2016 interview with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“I only talk to the press if it’s to my advantage,” writes Mitch McConnell, one of the most powerful men in American politics, in his new book. Last week, the advantage was evident. The Senate majority leader is on a book tour, promoting The Long Game: A Memoir.

‘There is no dysfunction in the Senate anymore,’ declared the Senate majority leader.

While McConnell plays the long game of persuading America that the Republican view of the world is reasonable, Charlie Rose on June 1 responded with his own master game: softball. His delivery is smooth, his windups lengthy and dotted with theatrical pauses. He plays host, not interlocutor.

So, to McConnell, Rose led with the standard elevator-pitch question: “What do you want the reader to come away with?” What he got, unsurprisingly, was boilerplate. “Americans are too speedy,” McConnell replied. The Senate, by contrast, is nicely deliberative. Indeed, in his book, McConnell advocates a Senate dedicated to slow-down:

The Senate is allowed to work the way it was designed to — meaning a place where nothing is decided without a good dose of deliberation and debate, as well as input from both the majority and minority parties — it arrives at a result that is acceptable to people all along the political spectrum. In recent years, however, we’ve lost our sense for the value of slow and steady deliberation.

On this subject, Charlie Rose fed McConnell another softball in the form of a middle-school civics query: “Is it a conservative government that the founders established, because they wanted… to make sure that this country didn’t rush into anything?”

“There is no dysfunction in the Senate anymore,” declared the Senate majority leader. Here’s Charlie Rose’s response: “Because Harry Reid is now the minority leader and you are the majority leader.”

Here’s how he didn’t respond: The US Judicial Conference considers that since 2015, when you became majority leader of the Senate, what they call “judicial emergencies” (based on caseloads and vacancies) have risen from 12 to 29. Why don’t you consider the Senate’s refusal to confirm or reject judicial nominations a dysfunction? Do you know that the Senate under your leadership has confirmed a total of 18 federal judges, compared to 72 in 1999-2000 when Trent Lott was the majority leader and 68 in 2007-08, when Harry Reid was in charge?

As MSNBC blogger Steve Benen pithily commented:

…The Senate can’t pass its own bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill, hasn’t passed a budget, is taking its sweet time in addressing the Zika virus threat, still requires supermajorities on practically every vote of any consequence, and is on track to give itself more time off this year than any Senate in six decades.

Rose asked nothing about Trump’s fitness for office, though McConnell has endorsed him. Nothing about Trump’s ethnic slurs or violent incitements. Nothing about banning Muslims or “blasting the hell out of ISIS” or breaking up NATO. Those were left to other journalists.

For example, NPR correspondent Steve Inskeep, who also spoke with McConnell, elicited from him the remark that Trump’s desired ban on Muslim immigration is “a very bad idea. I mean, for example, the king of Jordan, who is a great ally of ours, wouldn’t be able to come to the United States….”

When McConnell said, “We are massively overspending,” Rose extended himself to ask whether, on infrastructure, “Should we do more?” McConnell: “We certainly need to do more in selected areas….” Rose, helpfully breaking in: “Bridges, highways….”

Rather than explore questions of the moment for American citizens, Rose turned to horse race and handicapping matters, the white-bread staples of thoughtless or befuddled journalists: “How do you see the race?” “How are you doing at finding common ground [with Democrats in the Senate]?” When McConnell said, “From my perspective the president is a very far left guy,” Rose, after a delay, did ask, “What’s your case that he’s far left?” but when McConnell ticked off his talking points — “stop the regulatory rampage,” “regulatory assault” — Rose did not ask for particulars.

In other ways as well, Rose treated stock Republican claims as givens, ineligible for probes. When McConnell repeated the standard Republican line that “the entitlement programs,” Social Security and Medicare, are “unsustainable,” Rose dug no further. With a few seconds’ Google-based preparation, he or his researchers might have noted that, according to the Social Security Administration itself, “at the time of projected trust fund exhaustion in 2037, continuing tax revenue is expected to be sufficient to cover 76 percent of the currently scheduled benefits.”

As for making up the difference, Rose did not broach the question of raising the earnings cap, which redounds to the benefit of the wealthiest. In the first place, most Americans are unaware that there is an earnings cap on the payroll tax that funds Social Security. Rose had ample opportunity to elevate public understanding about a patent inequity. He didn’t. Moreover, he did not breathe a word about the liberal argument that while increasing life expectancy and baby boom retirements are often blamed for a coming crisis, “more of the shortfall is caused by slow and unequal wage gains” — in the words of Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute, as quoted in The Washington Post. He might readily have done so using the standard locution, “Some critics say,” which on other occasions he is not shy about tossing in.

Instead, Rose sank into other horse-race stuff and minutiae: “How close did we come to a grand bargain?” and “How has the Senate changed since you’ve been there?” comparable to an NBA TV commentator musing, What can you do differently to deal with Russell Westbrook? or What was wrong with your bench?(This latter question, actually posed to Golden State coach Steve Kerr as the Oklahoma City Thunder were blowing out the Warriors the other day, elicited the refreshingly non-McConnell-esque reply: “We sucked.”)

The choice of game before us is not spitballs versus softballs. It might be interesting, even entertaining, to play the game of Challenger or Excavator for Truth. Consider, for example, Jake Tapper’s unremitting attempt, in a CNN interview Friday, June 3, to get Trump to answer the question of whether it was racist for him to have noted that the judge hearing the civil suit against “Trump University” is Mexican. When Trump put up his stonewall, Tapper asked again. He followed up 23 times until he got a fairly straight answer.

He might well have taken a leaf from a recent book by a politician who wrote, “Good politics is repetition.” You guessed it: Mitch McConnell. Good journalism, too, doesn’t quit.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.