Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the least likely politician to get caught in a secret recording discussing the dark arts of campaigning. He usually says that stuff on the record. The four-term senator speaks openly about his political motivations. You may remember that in October 2010, McConnell told Major Garrett, then of National Journal, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
The recording was disclosed by Mother Jones reporter David Corn, who also discovered the famous "47 percent" video starring Mitt Romney. (Not since the Grateful Dead has an institution done so much with bootlegs.) McConnell and his staff can be heard plotting how to defeat his potential opponent, actress Ashley Judd, using her public remarks about religion, America and her battle with depression. In the wake of the report, McConnell has asked the FBI to investigate whether his office was bugged, and his campaign manager has accused the senator's political enemies of "Nixonian tactics." Stephen Law of American Crossroads - and a former McConnell aide - called on liberal groups to confirm they had no involvement in the recording. (American Crossroads ran an anti-Judd ad days after the secretly recorded meeting.) Democrats wonder why the senator's official staff was working on opposition research. It's still spring, but we should settle in for a summer stock performance of umbrage-taking.
Before this drama concludes, we should embrace a truth at the heart of this recording: We are in the era of the permanent campaign. At the time the recording was made, the November 2014 election was 21 months away, and McConnell was knee deep in strategy about a woman who hadn't even entered the race (or any previous political contest for that matter). He's a hands-on political operator, sure, but it's not just McConnell who is thinking about the next election. Strategists in both parties say that technological and strategic innovations have moved campaign start dates even earlier than before. The next elections are also at the heart of the big policy debates. The 2014 election is at the center of the gun control debate. The debate over immigration reform is motivated in large measure by Republicans worried about their presidential chances in 2016.
This is obvious. Suggesting a politician is worried about the next campaign is like accusing them of giving a speech. Still, the "permanent campaign" charge is thrown around as though it has the power to harm. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has attacked Obama for it. When Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threatened to filibuster gun legislation, fellow Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, Okla., suggested it was just about his 2016 presidential ambitions. Speaking last Monday, Obama said that that the gun-control debate was not about politics, but he is encouraging voters to contact their elected officials because he knows those officials will be moved if they think their electoral chances are threatened.
The hypocrisy about the permanent campaign is as old as the permanent campaign. After Bill Clinton's presidency of permanent campaigning, Dick Cheney declared early in George W. Bush's first term that "the days of the war room and the permanent campaign are over." But Clinton never gave James Carville or Dick Morris an official job. Bush installed his top political adviser, Karl Rove, in the White House to tend not only to Bush's political interests but also to provide counsel on House and Senate races. Denying the obvious became so commonplace that Bush felt comfortable telling reporters on Jan. 2, 2003, that he wasn't thinking about his next campaign minutes before huddling with Rove for his first extended strategy session for the 2004 campaign.
Obama's top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, was also his top White House adviser, and Obama also has learned to deny that he is campaigning while he is campaigning. Two weeks ago, while on a trip to raise money for Democratic candidates, the president decried the perpetual campaign at a campaign fundraiser.
It's not even too early to think about the 2016 election. That's how Republican Sen. Pat Toomey's recent move toward an agreement on background checks for gun purchases has been read. Toomey, a fiscal conservative, is not up for re-election for another three years, but Pennsylvania is a blue state with moderate voters whom he has to court, particularly since he'll be running in a presidential-election year. Democratic turnout will probably be higher. No Republican presidential candidate has won the state since 1988.
A number of Republicans think the party will only have a shot at reaching Hispanic voters if its members back comprehensive immigration reform. So when Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, was asked why Republicans were working so hard for comprehensive immigration reform, he said, "Elections, elections." If you're looking for what motivates politicians in Washington, that's always been a pretty good answer, but now, more than ever, we should just accept that we're in a permanent campaign.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.