Democrats Are About To Discover How Much They Needed Mitch McConnell

Democrats Are About To Discover How Much They Needed Mitch McConnell

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To liberals, Mitch McConnell is a dastardly master of the political dark arts, willing to do anything to serve his conservative aims. He enabled multiple GOP White Houses to play the long game, twisting himself when his previous pronouncements became inconvenient. The Kentucky Republican puppet-mastered into reality a regulatory regime that allows unchecked corporate and secretive individual cash back into politics after picking the scabs of McCain-Feingold campaign finance law until there was nothing left.

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In the liberal worldview, not only did McConnell steal a Supreme Court seat from Democrats in 2016 and clear the way for the conservative bench that dealt the death blow to federal abortion rights, he also stacked the decks in lower courts to make life easier for polluters, right-wing ideologues, and Wall Street. And, when the opportunity arose to finally purge the Republican Party of Donald Trump for good with a history-making second impeachment trial, McConnell looked away from the carnage once more.

Well, those same liberals who profess nothing short of loathing for McConnell might be about to find how much worse things can get without the Senate chieftain keeping his unruly Republican Caucus in some semblance of order. One can’t shake the meme asking “Miss Me Yet?”

McConnell on Wednesday announced that he was putting an end to his record-setting 17 years atop the Senate Republicans’ hierarchy. Only one other incumbent Republican—Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa—has experienced Washington without McConnell pulling major levers of power. And just seven incumbent Republicans have served in a Senate where McConnell was not in the party’s top job.

That longevity did little to mask McConnell’s own disappointment in his announcement.

“Believe me: I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time,” McConnell said in the well of the Senate. “I have many faults; misunderstanding politics is not one of them.”

As much as Democrats like to demonize McConnell, he has been a responsible cog for must-pass legislation to keep the government open and the national credit card working. McConnell’s years working alongside President Joe Biden in the Senate have kept that line of communication open between his second-floor suite in the Capitol and the White House’s satellite office nearby. McConnell also helped Biden pass part of his infrastructure investment agenda and, during the Trump years, provided a reliable guard against some of Trump’s most bananas ideas and watered down some of the others.

But absent McConnell’s Senate trickery and caucus wrangling, the Senate could soon devolve into its own version of the chaotic cos-play of The Hunger Games that is the House. While Democrats have no love for McConnell’s win-at-all-costs approach to politics, they often took it for granted when he rallied his ranks to dodge shutdowns and defaults. 

Perhaps the shrewdest mind in politics on either side of the aisle right now, McConnell is fully cognizant that he is leading a party that fundamentally disagrees with him on major questions—or at least hews to Trump’s prescriptions from afar out of fealty or fear. McConnell has fought an increasingly lonely fight within his party to secure funding to help Ukraine fight against Russia’s invasion and attacks from afar, much to the dismay of Trump and his worldview that views NATO as a racket. A $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan cleared the Senate this month with McConnell’s blessing and vote, although it is stuck in park over in the House, where Trumpian elements have incredible sway.

For McConnell, who arrived in office thanks to the same 1984 ballots that saw Ronald Reagan win 49 states, a Cold War worldview has evolved but never evaporated, and Moscow’s aggression needs to be answered on the battlefield and done so decisively. 

That put McConnell on a collision course with the Trumpists in his party, including some voting lawmakers who in recent years have grown emboldened in their face-to-face criticism of their leader. It’s not unheard of to hear screaming in the hallway outside Senate Republicans’ weekly private lunch, and McConnell is often the target. After one particularly nasty session, the ever-in-control McConnell coolly responded: “Are you suggesting I’m enjoying this?”

Since securing the party’s top role in 2007, McConnell has taken the criticism in stride. The self-described Grim Reaper of the Senate knows the rules well enough to thwart any legislation or nominee he found objectionable. In one legendary 1994 speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation, McConnell said inaction was, in itself, an action. “I am a proud guardian of gridlock,” he said. Through an often-inscrutable smirk, McConnell watches the chessboard of Washington move with few surprises. After all, the former campaign operative has run every model 20 clicks downstream, polls showing him to be the most unpopular elected official in national politics be damned.

But McConnell, who judges success in the Senate just as clinically as he does when watching his beloved University of Louisville Cardinals basketball and football teams, plainly saw his efficacy fading. In recent months, the 82-year-old Minority Leader has faced health challenges; after alarming freezing episodes, Congress’ doctor released a terse statement clearing him to serve, but the famously private McConnell has refused to be more candid than that.

Even as McConnell was delivering Trump legislative wins and confirming his judges, the then-President continued an unyielding series of insults at both McConnell and his wife, who happened to be serving in Trump’s Cabinet as his Labor Secretary. While McConnell employed his mastery at advancing Trump’s agenda—or blocking Democrats’ efforts where he deemed it necessary—he did so without any measure of appreciation from the President, who was focused on the few areas where McConnell refused to go his way.

The antipathy did not abate, even after McConnell spared Trump in his impeachment trial over a role in sparking the Jan. 6, 2021, riot that overran the Capitol. “Former President Trump’s actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said on the floor of the Senate. “Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” Then, McConnell voted against convicting him.

Still, Trump is the biggest figure in the Republican Party and seems coasting to a third presidential nomination despite the ongoing legal challenges he faces on multiple fronts. Trump just orchestrated the ouster of the Republican National Committee’s top ranks. In early 2022, Trump backed a leadership challenge to McConnell from Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, an effort that flamed out. And the grudge match with McConnell seems to be nowhere close to abating, telling Fox News that the relationship was far from healed: “I don’t know that I can work with him.”

A relative eternity exists between now and the next Leadership elections, expected to come after November’s elections that will decide which party controls the chamber come January 2025. The Three Johns—Thune of South Dakota, Barrasso of Wyoming, and Cornyn of Texas—have long been setting themselves up as McConnell’s heir. Ambitious colleagues like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Scott are also mentioned as favorites of the conservative wing of the GOP. And Sen. Steve Daines’ turn leading Senate Republicans’ campaign arm has made the Montana Republican an attractive option, too. Each of these men—and, yes, again they’re all men at this point—would face his own challenges in managing relationships inside a caucus where every single one of them looks in a mirror and sees a President, to borrow a well-trod trope. But, in the end, the winner very well may turn on who is seen as most agreeable—or pliable—to Trump.

As McConnell was informing his colleagues of his decision Wednesday, lawmakers struck a partial funding bill to dodge a shutdown, its fourth temporary spending plan since October. Instead of running out of money on Friday, some of the government has funding through March 8, while a new March 22 deadline has been put in place for other corners of government. The kick-the-can-down-the-road approach has left mainstream lawmakers of both parties and at all levels deeply frustrated. Republicans in the House are trying to insert riders into the budget to block access to abortion medications and to slash a proposed effort to boost spending for food programs for poor children and women, ideas that are likely to doom any progress. 

McConnell plans to remain in the Senate, returning to rank-and-file status and likely an unchallenged shift to chairman or ranking member on any committee of his choosing. “I still have enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics, and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm to which they have become accustomed,” he told the Senate, where his aides lined the walls to watch the boss start unspooling a remarkable run atop the GOP.

The Kentucky Republican’s legacy will be studied for generations, much of it focused on his obsessive partisan focus. But as Leader, he was a voracious student of history and precedent. And, most importantly for Democrats, McConnell has never shielded his point of view or his priorities. That predictability helped the Senate stand as a guard against House-caliber chaos. At best, there will be a learning curve for McConnell’s successor. At worst, the Senate may lose its traditional check. It would be, as McConnell himself observed in 2013, a landmark: “No Majority Leader wants written on his tombstone that he presided over the end of the Senate.” Washington cannot afford that norm to be the one that falls next.

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