During the question and answer session, Sen. McConnell has some fighting words to say to AEI resident Scholar Norm Ornstein. Here is how the Huffington Post described the exchange:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) came to the American Enterprise Institute on Friday to give a speech on the First Amendment, but the most memorable moment was his awkward exchange with Norm Ornstein, a centrist political pundit who has apparently irked McConnell over the years.
Ornstein, also an AEI scholar and congressional expert, was among those who rose to ask McConnell a question after his speech. As soon as he identified himself, McConnell let him have it.
"I've enjoyed dueling you, Norm, over the years. You've been consistently wrong on almost everything," McConnell said to laughs. "I've always wondered, you know, who eats lunch with you over here?"
Ornstein still hadn't asked a question yet as McConnell kept going.
"Actually, some of the worst things that have been said about me over the years have been said by Norm Ornstein," he continued. "You've been entirely wrong on virtually every occasion. I'm glad to see you. What's on your mind?"
Ornstein then got in his question: He asked McConnell about remarks he made in 2000 on NBC's "Meet the Press" in defense of disclosing donor details in politics, and noted that eight Supreme Court justices similarly ruled in the Citizens United case that there should be disclosures of all kinds in politics. As he continued, McConnell interrupted to say Ornstein's question wasn't accurate.
Those justices didn't defend disclosures "as a matter of constitutional interpretation," McConnell said. "I'm sure that if we passed a statute [in Congress] they wouldn't strike it down." As for his own past defense of disclosures, McConnell said one would have to go back to the 1980s to find a time when he defended disclosures for 501(c)4 nonprofit groups, something he says he was wrong to defend before.
"I made a mistake. I was wrong. I've been consistent for 25 years," McConnell said. "The Supreme Court left that up to Congress to decide."
Ornstein also asked if McConnell believes that groups like Organizing For America and Crossroads GPS are social welfare groups, which is a requirement for qualifying as a 501(c)4 nonprofit. McConnell briefly responded -- he said he agrees with the interpretation the IRS has used for 50 years -- but then took aim at Ornstein. Again.
"Let me tell you what Norm is really for," McConnell said. "If Norm had his way, he would push the private sector all the way of out the process of getting elected ... A total government takeover of the whole process, from the time you file to the time you're sworn in. And of course what kind of Congress is that likely to produce? The kind that wants to grow the government because the government would be in charge of how you got there."
"So make no mistake about it: Norm is a good, old-fashioned, far-left guy," McConnell added. "I like him. He's fine. He's been wrong for as long as I can remember. And it's great to see you here. I've been wanting to spar with you for years."
One of the reasons McConnell may have beef with Ornstein is because he recently threw his support behind the idea of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) invoking the so-called "nuclear option" and reforming Senate filibuster rules in response to high levels of GOP obstruction. Ornstein also blames Republicans like McConnell for unprecedented obstruction in his book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Reid even cited Ornstein last year during a spat with McConnell as proof that Republicans are behind Senate gridlock.
Later in the day, HuffPost Live interviewed Ornstein (video here) about the spat. Ornstein said that he was surprised by McConnell going after him, but said that he would be happy to meet with McConnell for a friendly beer. He also said that McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, should come too, since she is "more pleasant to be around." Chao is a Distinguished Fellow at the rival conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.
The Washington Post's Ezra Klein called the bizarre exchange the "think tank smackdown."
Perhaps Sen. McConnell is upset at Ornstein's close connection to the liberal Brookings Institution? After all, Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project. He also co-wrote a book with Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas Mann on Congressional dysfunction called "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track."