Dana Milbank: Sticks and stones break bones, but words hurt McConnell’s feelings

(Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP file photo) In this July 12, 2016 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. McConnell says he’s waiting for the White House to chart a path forward on gun violence legislation following another mass shooting in Texas. Asked about a Senate vote on House-passed legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases, McConnell said, “The administration is in the process of studying what they’re prepared to support, if anything, and I expect to get an answer to that next week.”

Washington * Sticks and stones may break his bones, but poor Mitch McConnell thinks words hurt him, too.

The Senate majority leader is distressed that people are calling him names. First there was "Moscow Mitch" (because he refuses to do anything significant to stop Russian interference in U.S. elections), and then there was "Massacre Mitch" and even "Murder Turtle" (because he refuses to take up gun-violence legislation despite massacre after massacre). At the risk of hurting the Kentucky Republican's tender feelings still further, I suggest another moniker: Muzzle Mitch.

McConnell, who styles himself a champion of free speech, has lately not been such a fan of free speech directed against him. The psychological boo-boos done to his thin skin have stirred him to hypocrisy.

On radio host (and Washington Post contributor) Hugh Hewitt's show this week, McConnell renewed his complaint that calling him Moscow Mitch is unacceptable -- "modern-day McCarthyism," he said. "You know, I can laugh about things like the Grim Reaper, but calling me Moscow Mitch is over the top."

Oh? McCarthyism, by definition, is a type of defamation using indiscriminate allegations based on unsubstantiated charges. But the allegations underlying Moscow Mitch are specific and well-substantiated. He has blocked virtually every meaningful bill to prevent a repeat of Russia's 2016 election interference. He led the effort to help a Russian oligarch's business evade sanctions, and when that business then made a substantial investment in Kentucky, former McConnell aides lobbied for it.

McConnell's view that the speech he dislikes is defamatory clashes with his professed First Amendment devotion. His money-is-speech argument has prevailed at the Supreme Court, causing the current flood of unlimited dark money in politics and the unparalleled vitriol it injected. He has, to his credit, defended flag burning, saying, "in this country we have a long tradition of respecting unpleasant speech." He also has championed free speech on the Senate floor.

"Hearing criticisms of one's beliefs and learning the beliefs of others is simply training for life in a democratic society," he said in June 2017. "It doesn't mean one has to agree with those opinions, but no one is served by trapping oneself and others in cocoons of ignorance. That is hardly the recipe for a free and informed society."

He and his aides have certainly asserted their own rights to make objectionable speech. Hours after the El Paso shooting in August, his campaign tweeted a photo of fake tombstones bearing the name of McConnell's Democratic Senate challenger Amy McGrath, among others. In another contemporaneous incident, young men (apparently volunteers) wearing "Team Mitch" campaign T-shirts posed in an Instagram photo groping and choking a cardboard cutout of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

McConnell's campaign brushed off both, saying the tombstones were a light-hearted homage to a cartoon, and the young men were not campaign staff.

But Team Mitch takes a less tolerant view of speech directed at him. In July, McConnell delivered a tirade on the Senate floor denouncing criticism of him (by me and others) as a threat to America's survival.

In August, when I detailed McConnell's role in helping Russian interests escape sanctions, his former campaign manager (and still informal adviser) Josh Holmes proposed that McConnell file "a defamation suit" against me, adding: "This guy deserves to lose his job and the Post should pay a price."

And when 25 anti-gun-violence demonstrators protested outside McConnell's Louisville home in August, McConnell's campaign said these were "serious calls to physical violence, and we've alerted law enforcement." But Louisville police told the New York Post the group was "protesting peacefully."

Examples of threats, taken from expletive-laden Facebook Live footage, included signs saying "F -- YOU MURDER TURTLE" and a woman who encouraged somebody to stab a hypothetical voodoo doll representing McConnell in the heart.

Talk of violence against public officials (and journalists) is disgusting, albeit commonplace these days, and I deplore the vulgar speech outside his residence. But this sounds more like the "unpleasant" but protected speech McConnell once defended than the criminal "actual threats" McConnell's team claimed. (Ironically, a McConnell campaign tweet showing demonstration footage caused Twitter to make the dubious call to block the campaign's account.)

Congress returns next week, and McConnell will again do his muzzling thing. He has served notice that he will squelch debate on any gun-related proposal unless President Trump supports it. "If the president is in favor," he told Hewitt, "I'll put it on the floor."

No alternative ideas will be considered. Thus spake Muzzle Mitch.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.