I’m sorry, people, but I just can’t ignore the sight of Mitch McConnell walking onto the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference hoisting a musket. Pardon the pun, but it may be the political shot of the year, although it’s early. If you haven’t seen it, put “McConnell with rifle” into your search engine, although “Dweeb with long gun” probably will do the trick. Let’s face it: Mitch McConnell is not the Mr. Macho type. He comes across as more … how shall I put it? … uh, studious.
So the picture of him armed but probably not dangerous is just a little incongruous, which is appropriate because he’s in Congress. More to the point, he wants to stay in Congress, and maybe switch from Senate minority leader to majority leader. Before that can happen, however, the first thing he has to do is defeat the tea-party opponent in his GOP primary back home in Kentucky — Matt Bevin, who charges that McConnell has betrayed the conservative cause by working out deals with (gasp!) Democrats.
So there he was, prancing locked and loaded before the right-wing CPAC audience near Washington, and also preening for the gun lovers back home, to show that he is one of them. Maybe it will work, but it may be another of those photos that bring on a shower of ridicule, like the one of Michael Dukakis in the tank helmet. (For those not past puberty, Dukakis was the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate. On Sept. 13 of that year, a picture of him was snapped on a military base wearing a tank commander’s helmet. Let’s put this gently: Dukakis, obviously of Greek descent, was called “Zorba the Clerk.” Many believe that photo of him with a helmet sitting high on his head sunk his campaign.)
As for McConnell, his opponents have jumped all over his stunt. The Democratic candidate for his seat, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, tweeted that “It’s not the way to carry a gun.” But Mitch is focusing more right now on his primary race, so once he handed off his musket, he fired some potshots at President Barack Obama, like, “My friends, never before has it been so hard for the rich to become poor or for the poor to become rich. That’s what is un-American! I can’t stand it, and you can’t stand it, and if we win the majority in November, I will work every day to change it.”
As usual, though, the focus at CPAC’s annual shindig was on the presidential possibilities. Chris Christie was there this year, which is mostly notable because he wasn’t invited in 2013. But now he was back to build some bridges (sorry, I couldn’t restrain myself) to the far right. All the other usual suspects were there: Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, plus the amazing self-promoters like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. Unlike McConnell, some of them didn’t need any props to come off as bizarre. For the record, the CPAC gathering closed out with its unscientific-to-the-point-of-being-meaningless straw poll, which was won this year by Rand Paul. Then everyone headed off satiated after several days of red meat.
McConnell will be returning to his foxhole in the Capitol building, looking for ways to somehow show the party faithful that, somehow, for all his years of deal-making in Washington, he’s as uncompromising as they are. Happily, Senate rules prohibit weaponry on the floor, or his visual stunt before CPAC would be nothing compared with what he’d concoct for the cameras of C-SPAN.
The Kentucky primary is May 20. If he survives it, he’ll need to switch gears to take on Grimes. Assuming he’s the candidate, he’ll be out to convince the large mass of nonextremist voters that he’s really just warm and fuzzy. That also might be farcical.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.