Mitch McConnell is the Most Talented Politician of Our Time
Editor's Note: This post first appeared on politicalwire.com, which if you don't already read, I highly, highly recommend. I've been visiting that site daily for years and was thrilled to have this piece featured for members of their site, of which I'm one! -David
Back in 2009, when Democrats held a 60-vote majority in the United States Senate, it was easy to make fun of Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Each morning the Senate was in session, he would dutifully rise to his podium, assert that the American people were against whatever initiative President Obama and the Democrats were pushing, and then sit back down and watch as Majority Leader Harry Reid went to working passing a sweeping Democratic agenda.
And yet, even in those moments of relative weakness, Mitch McConnell was plotting a historic rise to power. In those morning speeches, it was as if the election of 2008 had never happened. According to McConnell, the American people wouldn’t stand for all the spending and regulation and meddling in people’s affairs that the Democrats were proposing. For McConnell, organizing daily blockades of as many nominations and bills as possible was nothing more than the will of the American people.
It’s now been almost eight years since Mitch McConnell began this project, and in that time, he’s gone from being one of the most powerless “leaders” in American government to the architect of the greatest resurgence of Republican power since the 1920’s. In 2017, Republicans will control everything—the Presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the vast majority of Governorships and state legislatures. And as a bonus, the Obama coalition of young, diverse, and educated Democratic voters has been left weakened and fragmented throughout the country.
This all came to pass under Mitch McConnell’s direction, and it’s clear now that he is the most talented politician of our time. He stands with the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Lyndon Baines Johnson—creatures of the Senate who truly understand power, process, and the American public.
To see just how successful he’s been, consider the fate of McConnell’s Republican counterpart in the House for much of that time, Speaker John Boehner. Boehner too helped the Republicans regain control of Congress, but his methods led to an unruly base that blamed him just as much as President Obama for the changes they were seeing in society and their reduced stature in the nation.
Mitch McConnell is by no means popular, but he has avoided Boehner’s fate. Speaker Boehner was forced to resign just when Republican power was peaking, but Mitch McConnell never so much as batted an eye. Even in 2014, when there were pockets of uprising in Kentucky against him, McConnell fought back a primary challenge from now-Governor Matt Bevin (winning by 25 points) and a general election challenge from Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes (winning by 15 points). Calls for McConnell to step down along with Boehner were met with silence in the Senate.
In a body known for outsized egos, McConnell has corralled his fellow Republican Senators to block every one of Obama’s initiatives that he thought Republicans had the advantage on. Just look at some of his gambits that paid off. He almost singlehandedly organized the opposition to Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which has likely preserved a conservative advantage on the Court for a generation. He refused to negotiate on healthcare reform, even when Obamacare was essentially a Republican alternative to a public option and was partially drafted by Republicans Chuck Grassley and Olympia Snowe. McConnell led filibusters against gun control, equal pay, campaign finance reform, and other popular causes, but was barely scratched.
McConnell has been just as savvy when he doesn’t have the advantage. When the Bush tax cuts were set to expire at the end of 2012, McConnell worked with Vice President Joe Biden to preserve the basic framework of the cuts, trading a rise in the top rates for a cut to the estate tax. When House Republicans tried multiple times to shut down the government over the national debt, McConnell always found a way to negotiate a peace agreement and prevent Republicans from self-destructing. McConnell’s fingerprints were everywhere, and yet he made sure voters on the margin never blamed Republicans for their discontent with Congress.
No one else has consistently won on process, on policy, and in elections. Even as voters have swung from cycle to cycle, McConnell has come out on top. In 2012—a good year for Democrats—Harry Reid only won back two Senate seats. In 2014, he oversaw a Republican wave that netted him nine Senate seats and the majority. In 2016, McConnell deftly navigated the politics of supporting Donald Trump, ensuring that down-ballot Republicans were protected and that Trump himself had enough establishment support to win. Even with an incredibly unfavorable map, McConnell defied the odds and lost only two seats, holding his majority.
Again, none of this has made Mitch McConnell very popular. He polls poorly, the press routinely decries his tactics, and for many, he represents the kind of partisan politics that makes compromise and addressing this nation’s problems all but impossible.
But you cannot deny his effectiveness. His goal for the last eight years has been nothing less than winning back the Presidency and returning Republicans to power. He has done just that, and with a favorable map in 2018, he could enjoy another four years at the helm of the world’s greatest deliberative body. For better or for worse, it has been one of the great exercises of political power of our time.
As Lyndon Johnson once said, “Power is where power goes.” For Mitch McConnell, that power has raised him and his fellow Republicans to the heights of unified control of American government.