Politics

Goodbye, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell, seen from the shoulders up, gazes to his right as he removes a blue surgical mask from his right ear, with it still dangling from his left ear.
Mitch McConnell in the Capitol on Jan. 3. Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the leader of his chamber’s Republican majority since 2015, had one priority at all times: perpetuating and increasing his party’s power.

That was McConnell’s only priority in 2009 when he told his members to vote against any bill supported by Barack Obama, including economic relief and health care legislation that was assembled in good faith to appeal to (and benefit) Americans of all ideological dispositions. That was his only priority when he refused to hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, terminating Obama’s ability to appoint justices with nearly a full year left in his presidency. It was his only priority when he told the Obama administration he would try to discredit even the most cautious efforts on its part to inform the public about the Russian intelligence campaign to support Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016. It was his only priority when he changed the Senate’s filibuster rules in 2017 to enable Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court spot Garland would have filled. It was his only priority when he engineered Trump’s acquittal on charges of attempting to blackmail Ukraine into smearing Joe Biden. It was his only priority when he supported Trump’s reelection despite the administration’s obviously catastrophic inability to administer a response to the COVID-19 crisis. It was his only priority when he threw out his own rule about Supreme Court vacancies in election years to hustle Amy Coney Barrett into Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacant seat even as voting for the next president was underway. It was his only priority in December, when he blocked both Democrats and Trump from passing a larger and more useful economic relief bill because it would likely have ultimately benefited the Biden administration, demonstrating that he intended to use the weight of his Senate majority to drive the pandemic recovery, and with it the incoming presidency, into the ground. It was, in fact, the only priority that a bombshell New York Times report mentioned in explaining why McConnell supports Trump’s second impeachment. “The Senate Republican leader has made clear in private discussions that he believes now is the moment to move on from the weakened lame duck,” the article said, “whom he blames for causing Republicans to lose the Senate.”

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There’s someone else to blame too, actually. By grasping at every advantage, no matter how undemocratic or irregular or destructive, Mitch McConnell left the Republican Party under his leadership so erratic, unpopular, and outright dangerous as to allow an Irish-Catholic Democrat, a Jewish Democrat, and a Black Democrat to sweep a presidential race and two Senate races in the heart of the South. Instead of being the leader of an unstoppable and unaccountable Senate majority, McConnell ended the last elections of the 2020 cycle with only 50 senators on his side.

It’s true that the other side will only have 50 senators too. In another era, this might have meant bipartisan deference and consensus-seeking about what conception of the national interest would guide the continuing function of the government. But it’s because Mitch McConnell was so successful in making the national interest something for other people to worry about that those other people will have to ignore him now. The “power-sharing” arrangement Chuck Schumer is offering is the kind of sharing where the Democrats control all the committees. This is how power politics works, McConnell: The other guys’ 50 votes count more than your 50 votes do because they own the tiebreaker. They’re just playing by the rules. And the rules you wrote say you get nothing.

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