In the midst of this January’s historic, senselessly protracted government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided it was time to put forward his vision of how government should properly function. So he took to the Washington Post op-ed section to deride a modest set of Democratic proposals to institute election and voting rights reform. Instead of doing the right thing and bowing to President Donald Trump’s demand for the partial funding for a wall along the country’s southern border with Mexico, McConnell complained, congressional Democrats were trying to game America’s electoral system to their own permanent advantage.
McConnell’s litany of complaints spun off into labored assaults on proposals to reorganize the Federal Elections Commission (a bid to give “Washington a clearer view of whom to intimidate”) and to make Election Day a national holiday for federal workers, together with six days of paid leave for such employees to work in their local precincts to help get out the vote (or, in McConnell-ese, “extra taxpayer-funded vacation for bureaucrats to hover around while Americans cast their ballots”).
For actually existing ordinary Americans—including the 800,000 or so federal employees plunged into desperate economic uncertainty by the shutdown—this was a singularly bizarre spectacle to behold: The man in Washington arguably most responsible for prolonging the ordeal of the shutdown was now pronouncing that an effort to enlarge the sphere of democratic participation was a venal, bureaucratic power grab, and a brazen affront to the sacred liberty of big-money political donors and their legislative mouthpieces.
Just pan back a moment to savor the larger power dynamics in play here: As he was lecturing Democratic reformers on the folly of voting rights expansion, McConnell was crippling the basic operations of government to assuage the bigoted vanity of the Republican president. Recall that the continuing resolution to finance the government without wall funding at the end of the 115th Congress passed overwhelmingly in the chamber he leads, and that he vigilantly squelched successive House versions of the same funding plan throughout the monthlong shutdown drama for no reason except that he didn’t want to be the person to end it. This isn’t mere lefty hyperbole: At one critical juncture in the shutdown negotiations, Lindsey Graham, the Trump White House’s key Senate liaison, left a conference with the Senate majority leader to blurtthe quiet part out loud to CNBC producer Karen James Sloan. Leader McConnell, Graham explained, is “going to let the White House figure out what move they want to make. . . . The Leader is waiting . . . to see what the White House wants to do.”
So much, in other words, for all the sonorous talk of the United States Senate as the world’s most august deliberative body: Its most powerful majority leader over the past decade is an errand boy for both an errant billionaire class of campaign donors, and an errant billionaire president.
What’s more, that’s just how Mitch McConnell wants it. Something of a journalistic cottage industry has sprung up around the recondite question of just what makes Mitch tick, but the uninspiring, mundane answer is hiding in plain sight. Mitch McConnell is the great avatar of the decades-long enclosure of our public life by money. He does not offer a stirring vision of conservative national greatness or even ends-justify-the-means rationales for Senate horse-trading that depart from the disheartening transactional version of our politics that reigns in the Citizens Unitedage. In Mitchworld, you simply pay—and pay, and pay—to play.
This brute fact accounts for a host of lesser paradoxes of McConnell’s career, beginning with this: The genuine tactical brilliance of his parliamentary career only gets appreciated by the loyal opposition of the left. Leftist critics of the plutocratic drift of conservative ideology—which is to say, American politics these days—appreciate the materialist candor of McConnell’s thug agenda in a way that the true-believing right never has. The fabled small-government, evangelical base of Republican national politics has always distrusted—and indeed, often hated—Mitch McConnell. This was brought home to me forcefully at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, as I watched, from the press seats, Reince Priebus introduce the Senate majority leader as the temporary chairman of the convention. From the floor, the boos outweighed the cheers.
And the Mitch McConnell they were booing was pretty much peak Mitch McConnell. At that moment, he was in the middle of the greatest stand of his career: refusing to allow a Democratic president to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, based on an obscurantist reading of Senate appointment protocols that he was all but making up as he went along. The man nominated for the presidency at that convention would, with McConnell’s considerable help, go on to give the conservative movement a Supreme Court majority that looks poised to last a generation. Back in July 2016, that victory seemed exceedingly unlikely, hinging, as it did, on the election of a widely hated and transparently ridiculous man as president. But McConnell was the only person with the power and audacity to get any sort of court victory out of the last year of the Obama presidency. They still booed him.
They know, on the right, that McConnell isn’t really part of their movement. He’s got no core. What they haven’t seemed to grasp—though this may finally be changing—is that he’s the primary reason their politics have had any success at all in the twenty-first century. Indeed, this unlikely conservative culture hero might go down in history as the man who saved their movement from the utter destruction of its electoral vehicle, the GOP. But that’s also the source of the profound distrust that Trumpist ideologues hold out for brazenly transactional leadership figures like McConnell, or Paul Ryan, or John Boehner; the Republican Party they’ve all been trying to shore up at the institutional level is the same structure that die-hard movement conservatives are dead set on immolating. Mitch McConnell’s version of success, in other words, seems at most like a prophetic exile in the wilderness to the folks who have seized conservative power to wage the culture war as opposed to the workaday Republican business of plutocratic looting.
But if they recognize that McConnell isn’t truly one of them, what is he? Political journalists have been asking versions of this question since basically the day he became the top Republican in the Senate despite a conspicuous lack of charisma, friends, or big ideas. The New York Times Magazine’s Charles Homans was the latest reporter to puzzle over the sphinxlike riddle of McConnell’s deeper motivations, in a lengthy profile published in January. The answer, as ever, is that McConnell is in every way a study in stolid depth-resistance. He’s basically just what he looks like: a man serenely unbothered by anything he’s done to get his power or anything he’s done with it, having few friends but many allies. Homans’s profile attempts to answer a question—can McConnell square his record with his apparent belief in himself as a man of principle?—that is only of interest if you genuinely care about whether he knows what a hypocritical bastard he is, or if you think someone asking him the right question can get him to care.
The piece mainly focuses on McConnell’s relationship to Donald Trump, which has been—yes—purely transactional and, to the disbelief of observers who assumed they’d clash, mutually beneficial in many respects. When Homans asks McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whether Trump and McConnell like each other, he writes, “she was silent for a full four seconds before replying, ‘You’ll have to ask the president that, and you’ll have to ask the leader that.’”
Asking someone who’s married to one of them and works for the other if they like each other does elicit a good chuckle, but it’s a strange question, really. Do they like each other? Does anyone like Mitch McConnell? As a means of unearthing character, such questions are what philosophers call a category error: To do his job, Mitch McConnell doesn’t need anyone to like him. He just needs enough money to keep winning elections.
When magazine writers go for the McConnell profile, they usually run aground on the rocks of his complete non-presence. There’s not much in the way of illuminating personal anecdata in the man’s biography, so they cast him as the Master Dealmaker despite his lack of actual made deals—he tends to get a lot of credit for belatedly signing off on unsatisfactory ends to artificial crises that he, through inaction, allowed to fester—or the man beset by, and at the risk of losing his power to, an unwieldy new class of right-wing nuts (the Tea Party, and then Trump).
Except, of course, he has lived through this before. The best account of Mitch McConnell’s life and political career comes, unsurprisingly, from a representative of the avowedly (as opposed to accused) liberal media, the former New Republic reporter Alec MacGillis, whose aptly titled McConnell biography, The Cynic, was published in 2014. MacGillis writes that McConnell was a liberal Republican as a young man in the 1960s, when that was a perfectly normal thing to be. He was even pro-choice (which, again, would have been the natural position of any moderate, non-Catholic Republican at the time). Reagan, according to MacGillis, was McConnell’s fourth choice for the 1980 Republican nomination for president. But after Reagan’s victory, it became clear which side had won the internecine war over what the GOP was going to be from now on. So McConnell simply became a Reagan Republican.
After his long career in the Senate, it may be impossible now to convince anyone he’s a Tea Party conservative or a MAGA Republican, but he’ll be perfectly comfortable working with members of both factions so long as they don’t harm his fundraising hauls or reelection chances. In the 2010 primary, Rand Paul defeated Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, McConnell’s handpicked successor to the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, running as an anti-establishment libertarian-ish maverick. McConnell shrugged, endorsed Paul, and participated in a make-believe talking filibuster he let Paul do as a favor. The junior senator has never given him any trouble; he’s become a reliable political ally, in fact.
That’s the nice thing about defining your political project so narrowly: It makes it easy to get along with figures as diverse as Donald Trump and Susan Collins, each of whom only needs a little flattery now and then to believe McConnell’s on their side.
Read enough about Mitch McConnell and you come to see him as a man of pure ambition and little else. But it’s ambition pointed in a strangely specific direction: the Senate itself. A recurring theme in McConnell profiles is someone close to him saying he never wanted to be president, but always dreamed of being the majority leader of the Senate. (The New York Times Magazine, 2019: “‘I think most senators look in the mirror and think they hear “Hail to the Chief” in the background,’ Terry Carmack, who has worked for McConnell on and off since his first Senate campaign, told me. ‘But he always wanted to be in the Senate.’” Politico Magazine, 2013: “‘Most politicians dream of being president,’ his former chief of staff Billy Piper told me. ‘McConnell dreams of being majority leader.’”) Even by the standards of other Washington creatures whose brains were poisoned by their weird ambitions, that is a weird ambition.
But once you realize McConnell has already achieved his life’s dream, and ascended to the limits of his ambition, his behavior suddenly starts to make more sense. He’s not trying to cap off his career with a legislative masterstroke, because he doesn’t care about legislation. He already won. He’s the Senate majority leader, his parliamentary prowess is regularly feted, and he has already left his legacy indelibly inscribed on the highest court in the land.
Being a Senate majority leader who doesn’t care about almost any particular outcome to any particular political issue not directly related to making sure your funders can fund you actually seems to take quite a bit of pressure off, job performance–wise. Why go to bat to try to end a government shutdown when you don’t actually care if the government is shut down? Here’s Homans on McConnell’s answer to the question, “What do you see as your role, the majority leader’s role, in a time of crisis?”
“Well,” McConnell replied, “I think what I have to do, my goal, and depending upon what the numbers are, and what’s achievable, is always to get as right-of-center an outcome as possible.” He brought up the example of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which we had been discussing: a bill produced from a high-stakes negotiation between the White House and congressional Republicans, in which McConnell, breaking with newly elected Tea Party hard-liners in the House, played dealmaker, providing the Democrats with bipartisan cover for a necessary debt-limit increase while also securing cuts that Republicans had sought.
“I mean, at the risk of sounding like I’m patting myself on the back, who would have ever thought with Barack Obama in the White House you could get something like the Budget Control Act in August of 2011, which actually drove down government spending for two years in a row?” McConnell said. “To me, given the numbers, and if you prefer America right of center, that’s my definition of success.” I was startled not just by his frankness but by the type of crisis that McConnell’s mind had gone to, which was not exactly the kind of worst-case scenario that was foremost on many minds during Trump’s presidency.
This is an extremely funny answer to anyone who remembers recent political history. The Budget Control Act of 2011 was a temporary compromise intended to use the threat of a future catastrophe to force a larger and more lasting compromise. Republicans in Congress had threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling—once more holding the basic operations of government hostage—unless the Obama administration acceded to their demands for economic austerity. At effectively the last moment before economic disaster, Republicans and the White House negotiated the Budget Control Act of 2011, which called for the creation of a bipartisan deficit-reduction “supercommittee” to propose a truly bipartisan austerity package within a few months. If Congress failed to pass it or a similar package, a series of automatic budget cuts would go into effect. These cuts were designed to be anathema to both parties—mostly because they would target defense spending, in addition to outlays for social spending and income supports. The entire point was that everyone would be incentivized to get a huge bipartisan deficit-reduction bill passed.
The supercommittee gave up after a few months and never sent anything to Congress. Congress delayed the punitive spending cuts for a while and then just let them go into effect. They are, in fact, still in effect—but now Congress votes every few years to temporarily cancel some of the automatic cuts to discretionary spending. In other words, all this high-stakes procedural confrontation simply produced another pointless artificial cliff. And far from achieving some golden-mean version of sober, fiscally restrained governance, it only increased the likelihood that the framework of budgeting-by-extortion would be used to extract demands from some future president or Congress—say, over a feckless plan to erect a wall to contain a nonexistent threat of rampaging immigrant criminality pouring across the Mexican border.
The fiscal cliff endgame was an outcome no one really wanted, which is what passes for “compromise” and “bipartisanship” in some segments of the political press. And while it did cut spending for a few years, it did so at the expense of something President Obama was, at various points in his presidency, practically desperate to sign into law with Republican support: a package of massive permanent spending cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other programs. Republicans had a Democratic president who wanted to help them achieve one of their supposed signature policy goals, and they simply refused to allow him to do it. McConnell’s great victory was that he came in at the last minute to sign off on a deal designed to extort major policy outcomes that he and his party were solemnly pledged to support, but that his party then capsized out of pique and incompetence.
But here we encounter another blank mystery for the oracles: Does Mitch McConnell really care if government spending rises or falls? Does he truly care if Social Security is privatized? His benefactors do, sure—and he cares about what they want for what are (yet again) painfully obvious reasons. But any issue without direct relevance to McConnell’s political fortunes is, for him, negotiable. Prior to the 2006 midterms, which were not looking good for the Republican Party, McConnell even advised President Bush to withdraw from Iraq to save the election. That’s how much he cares about the conservative project, as opposed to electoral success. The neocons wanted power in order to use it to shape the world. McConnell wanted to shape the world into one in which he continues to have power, and he did. Which is all to say, if he had doubts about Trump in 2016, they evaporated on election night, just as his doubts about his fourth-ranked presidential choice did back in 1980.
In fact, it’s worth asking if we haven’t been thinking about McConnell’s political “evolution” all wrong from the beginning. Was he a liberal Republican—who still talks about witnessing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington as a young Senate intern—who cynically adapted to changing circumstances? Did he, like fellow pro-choice-Republican-turned-abortion-foe George H.W. Bush, sell out to win? Or was he just a Republican, period, who was a “liberal” one only because he then believed that was the most viable road to success in the party? He was strategically a Rockefeller Republican at a time when you could still make a bet that such socially moderate business types would survive the successive righteous onslaughts of the conservative movement. He has nearly all of his Republican colleagues beat: His moderation itself was cynical.
If McConnell’s entire goal has been his political advancement within the Senate (which also requires supporting the Republican Party electorally by any means necessary), his career trajectory suddenly develops a tidy narrative throughline. He was a bit aimless in his early years in office, because he hadn’t arrived in the Senate with an ideological mission. He randomly threw his support behind an expensive health care plan and even backed federally subsidized family leave to fend off his first Democratic challenger for reelection. It was not quite the record of a future party leader.
But he was consistent—or rather, consistently inconsistent in one strategic direction—about one issue: campaign finance, on which he very quickly developed a reputation as an expert. He knew fundraising was his primary political strength and probably the only reason he was even in office to begin with.
His problem was that, back in early 1990s, limiting money in politics was a popular and mostly bipartisan idea, and the main disagreements were about what kinds of money to restrict and how to do it. And over the years, McConnell shamelessly, fluidly recalibrated his arguments based on what was more useful to him, and then his party, at that moment.
MacGillis patiently chronicles this process in his book: When McConnell felt he wasn’t getting enough support from PACs, he wanted PACs banned. When he thought Democrats were outperforming Republicans with “soft money”— contributions from corporations and unions to parties, not individual candidates— McConnell wanted soft money banned. By the end of the ’90s, when it was clear how much Republicans were benefiting from soft money, he was vociferously defending it from the attacks of his Republican Senate colleague John McCain, who’d made it his mission to rein inpolitical spending. For years, McConnell argued for disclosure of donors instead of spending restrictions. By the 2010s, when Democrats were pushing exactly that position to curb some of the deregulatory excesses of the Citizens United ruling—which represents the closest thing you’ll find to a lodestar for McConnell’s belief system—the Senate leader of course reversed himself yet again.
He also made an important rhetorical shift, one that tracked closely with his second great political crusade: enabling the slow but implacable death march of right-wing jurisprudence. Early on in McConnell’s career, he mainly made his case for opposing campaign spending restrictions in pragmatic terms. But in 1995, he reversed his position on a flag-burning ban in order, critics charge, to more credibly pursue his new campaign of pushing all political spending as First Amendment–protected speech, aligning him with the conservative legal movement. (It may seem silly, but coming up with a principles-based reason for a decision that will have a politically or materially beneficial outcome for you or your side is a cornerstone of conservative legal theory.)
It’s also worth noting, as one wades through the brackish capitulations to plutocratic power that Mitch McConnell has always loudly and forcefully embraced as a vindication of his first principles, that his is a case in which the personal is very much political. When you spend so much of your time asking rich people for money, it does help to have a lot of it yourself, so you have something in common. Curiously, McConnell’s own personal fortunes are frequently left out of his profiles, perhaps because it appears vaguely unseemly for reporters or editors to just come out and say the plain truth: He married into money, which had enormous political benefits. This is not to make any unsavory insinuation about the nature of his relationship with Elaine Chao—it is, however, to note that she was a wealthy shipping heiress when they married, and he was effectively a lifelong politician who’d barely sniffed the private sector. Even before the marriage, Chao’s wealthy father had been a large Mitch McConnell donor; after, he became an even more enthusiastic one. He also gave the couple at least one reported gift of millions of dollars. In 2016, Mitch McConnell was estimated to be worth around $27 million.
McConnell knew first that unlimited fundraising was the key to his own political fortunes. He came to realize it was the best way for the Republicans to keep their power too, as unions declined and corporate power, along with income inequality, rose and rose. Republicans have a built-in advantage in a world of unlimited political spending. It took McConnell’s forceful arguments with people like John McCain to get them all to come around to his way of thinking.
McConnell spent most of his career scheming to become the top Republican in the Senate, so it must have been a profound disappointment that he was not able to do so until 2007, by which time the Bush administration had so destroyed the reputation of the Republican Party that it had lost both houses of Congress. McConnell’s Senate colleagues elected him minority leader in a blaze of powerless compromise. The remaining moderates thought they had chosen someone who’d have their back as the party continued to lurch rightward. He absolutely would do anything to help any Republican senator keep their seat—he tossed a couple of million dollars for infrastructure to Rhode Island to aid liberal GOP incumbent Lincoln Chafee’s doomed reelection bid—and he did exert some effort to keep the most extreme candidates from winning primaries (for electoral, not ideological, reasons). But if the GOP was trending wingnut and kept winning elections, McConnell would go along with that plan just as readily. (Chafee, for his part, mounted a brief run at the presidency in 2016—as a Democrat.)
This is where the story of how Mitch McConnell saved the GOP begins. The infamous strategy that McConnell dreamed up and put into action to throttle any putative accomplishment of the Obama White House, no matter how nugatory, has become the stuff of right-wing parliamentary lore. We know the quote about his main priority being to make Obama a one-term president. It’s easy to forget now, though, the long odds he faced.
The GOP after Bush should have been finished for a generation. It was utterly defeated, and a Democratic president had just been elected—via the Democrats’ fourth popular vote victory of the last five presidential elections—in a near-landslide. Massive Democratic majorities were installed in both houses, and the Senate Democratic caucus flirted with the true golden ring of power: an actual filibuster-proof majority. The economy was in ruins, and everyone knew who was to blame for that: Republicans. The signature policy of the Bush administration, the Iraq War, was acknowledged by all to be a catastrophic failure. The situation looked about as bad for Republicans as it had on FDR’s inauguration day. But they surged back into power almost immediately.
There are a lot of interconnected reasons for this, including but not restricted to: Barack Obama’s early decision to move on from further investigation (let alone prosecution) of Bush administration officials; political choices made to prioritize stabilizing Wall Street over providing relief to homeowners; and the Democratic Party’s long-term inability or unwillingness to treat the Republican Party as an extreme and malign force that must be defeated, instead of negotiated with. And McConnell can’t take credit for personally creating the conditions that led to the plainly racist national backlash against the first black president (he has a few generations of predecessors in his party and the conservative movement to thank for that). But he does deserve the credit he has received for ruining the honeymoon: for taking a moment of national inspiration and almost immediately souring it. In 2009, Republican senators, like most senators in the old days, were still driven to cut deals and negotiate compromises to make themselves feel important. Democrats hungered to give them opportunities to have input into major legislation. “I was determined to demonstrate how the Senate could still work,” MacGillis quotes Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd saying, after he duly sought Republican participation in the effort to craft a financial regulation bill. Of course, McConnell had to prove the opposite. And McConnell, as a political nihilist, always has an advantage over people determined to prove things work: It’s much easier to simply make things not work, if the only outcome you care about is electoral.
So Republicans in Congress painstakingly drew out the negotiations over the Obama agenda while stigmatizing the results as rank political perfidy. They created and stoked, via the Koch-funded antics of the Tea Party, a national backlash against the Affordable Care Act. And against all odds, Republicans managed to take back the House two years into Obama’s presidency.
Even so, the 2012 presidential election was another wake-up call: Americans still mostly hated Republicans and their ideas and their politicians. Some Republicans understood this and began circulating memos calling for the party to find ways to appeal to young people, Latino voters, and moderates. Others started laying the groundwork for a full-on revival of Pat Buchanan’s herrenvolk brand of white populism.
McConnell just kept things moving slowly, waiting to see. He’d finally win majority leader after Republicans again did well in the 2014 midterms, knocking out Democratic incumbents mostly in “presidential” red states—not enough angry white men to win a national election, maybe, but more than enough to win a healthy Senate majority. And that majority, under McConnell’s gleefully nihilist direction, would grind the judicial nomination process almost to a halt.
Donald Trump would enter the presidency with 88 district and 17 court of appeals vacancies to fill, along with a Supreme Court vacancy improbably procured and kept open by McConnell’s obstructionist absolutism. A seemingly bulletproof Republican Senate majority stood by, eager to seat the furthest-right nominees to all these judicial seats that they could find.
Not even Mitch McConnell originally thought Trump would get that chance, of course. Like everyone else, he viewed Trump’s seizure of the nomination as a worst-case scenario for the GOP. But as he always does when the GOP is self-destructing, he mainly kept quiet. Behind the scenes, of course, he did two key things to help: First, for old time’s sake, he refused to let Obama have one last moment of bipartisanship, when the president asked him and House Speaker Paul Ryan to call out Russian interference in the 2016 elections, according to former Vice President Joe Biden.
Even that was another campaign finance story. Leonard Blavatnik is a Russian-American dual citizen who made his fortune in postcommunist Russia. He had a history of donating modest sums to candidates from both parties until he became, suddenly, an extraordinarily generous supporter of Mitch McConnell’s political machine in 2015, The Dallas Morning News reported. From 2015 to 2017, Blavatnik steered $3.5 million to McConnell’s PAC. An offshore holding company co-owned by Blavatnik and billionaire Viktor Vekselberg owns 26.5 percent of Rusal, the aluminum giant controlled by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is regularly said to be the lobbying client most responsible for Paul Manafort getting in trouble. McConnell was first briefed about Russian attempts to sabotage or interfere with the presidential election in September 2016. In October, his PAC accepted another $1 million from Blavatnik. The total haul was only made possible by the campaign finance system created not by some Senate majority, but by our conservative Supreme Court in its landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling. This year, McConnell fought some opposition in his own party to lift sanctions that had been placed on Rusal by the Treasury Department.
Regardless of your feelings about the Russia investigation, it’s not hard to imagine McConnell’s response to being told Russians were interfering in the election while a Putin-connected oligarch was shoveling money into his PAC: If they want to help us, let ’em. I’m not impugning his patriotism, either. He already had a documented history of changing foreign policy beliefs based on political donations: MacGillis records his quick transformation in the 1990s from an implacable foe of Red China to a supporter of “most favored nation” trading status with the People’s Republic, which coincided with some healthy fundraising from contributors to the U.S.-China Business Council.
Then, McConnell dutifully kept that Supreme Court seat open, soaking with pleasure in the bilious, disbelieving rhetoric of the process-and-norms–oriented political analysts, historians, and pundits who uniformly upbraided him for the brazen way he was breaking the institution he claimed to love. And he was in close contact with the Federalist Society ideologues advising the Trump campaign on which judges it would be nice to see a future Republican president appoint.
It was this moment of typically transactional realpolitik power-brokering at McConnell’s behest that may have helped Trump get across. In the end, the president’s wildly improbable electoral college victory happened for countless reasons that might not play out the same way if you ran that election over again ten times. And McConnell doesn’t like taking personal responsibility for Trump, of course, so he says President Rubio or Bush would have nominated the same people.
And he’s right about that—but Rubio or Bush would’ve lost, because America hates Republicans. Trump won because he created a mini-coalition of just enough people who hate Republicans, and Republicans who voted for him because of Mitch McConnell.
As Trump’s presidency has predictably proved to be a series of outrages and self-inflicted national crises, punctuated with periodic updates on all the crimes and should-be-crimes his friends, associates, and children have committed, McConnell has receded into the wallpaper. It’s another of his special political talents. During that historic shutdown, he simply vanished for days at a time, letting his louder, dimmer counterpart in the Democratic minority, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, make himself the face of the Senate side of the negotiations. And the thing is, with every other major player in Washington desperate to get in front of a camera, this strategy works astoundingly well at deflecting attention and blame for things that are absolutely your own fault.
Recounting McConnell’s handling of a prior crisis, Bloomberg Businessweek writer Joshua Green described his strategy well: “McConnell nevertheless manipulates the press masterfully, using methods that are head-smackingly obvious and yet still elude most politicians. He knows exactly what he wants to say, repeats it with emphasis, then stops.” For those wondering how he’ll react if the government shuts down again, or if Trump causes some constitutional crisis by firing everyone investigating him, or if John Bolton declares war on Sweden, there’s your answer.
Congress attracts quite a few people whose primary ambition is having things named after them, and Mitch McConnell has always seemed clearly cut from that mold. It is only because of an unfortunate historical confluence that his career advancement coincided with the success, maturation, and eventual psychotic breakdown of the modern conservative movement. This has meant that his ultimate goal—his name on an ugly marble Senate office building or something—has required that he, at every step on his ascent to power, enable the worst excesses of an increasingly deranged movement of cranks, bigots, grifters, and plutocrats.
When Homans asked McConnell if he ever worries that he’s “strengthening the hand of a president who does seem, in some ways, very much inclined to do damage to institutions of American governance,” McConnell ducked responsibility for oversight by turning it over to the American people:
“Well, I mean, the ultimate check against any of this is the ballot box,” McConnell replied. “And one could argue, at least with regard to the House of Representatives last year, that there were plenty of people who wanted a midcourse correction.”
McConnell said those words as the majority leader of a deeply and intentionally undemocratic institution that exists to dilute the political power of citizens in larger and more diverse states. He said them about a president who was elected despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent, thanks to the counter-majoritarian workings of another antiquated and intentionally undemocratic institution that he, obviously, would fight any effort to reform. And, of course, he says this as a man whose political project is increasingly about reducing the power of the ballot box as much as possible—a man who breaks any and all decorous governing traditions in his path in order to confirm judges who strike down voting rights laws, and who, during government shutdowns that he has the power to end, sits down to write op-eds bemoaning attempts to make Election Day a holiday.
McConnell has built a GOP machine that is as immune as it can be to the ballot box, because he is smart enough to know that Republicans cannot, as currently constituted, win fair elections often enough to retain power.
But by choosing incredibly canny battles—his relentless attempts to first upend even the possibility of campaign finance regulation and enforcement, and then to pack the judiciary with right-wing ideologues—McConnell has enabled the conservative movement to dominate American politics long after its tenets are fully rejected by the majority of the electorate.
All that time with McConnell did give Homans one special insight: McConnell hasn’t just “broken” the Senate by smashing its norms, or by making it dysfunctional. He’s essentially worked to make it irrelevant. For the foreseeable future, America’s regulatory policy will be written by the judiciary. Its ability to prosecute white-collar crime and bribery, to levy taxes, and create social welfare programs—all of these powers will be stripped from the Senate and put in the hands of the men (it’s almost all men) McConnell has placed on the courts. But he’ll probably go to his grave chuckling that Harry Reid started it, and get his name on that damn building too. America doesn’t really remember why it hated its political villains for very long, especially when they win.
And the beautiful thing here is that Mitch McConnell already won. Even with Republicans losing the House, McConnell has another two years to complete his life’s work: a pipeline, sucking donor money out of the plutocracy and refining it into a judiciary that will someday declare it unconstitutional to levy property taxes on a billionaire’s climate change-adaptation bunker.