As Congress chugs along toward likely passage of a nearly $1 trillion coronavirus relief package, The Hill reports that “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is getting much of what he wants…” That McConnell eventually gets his way should come as no surprise to anyone who’s paying attention. Name one person who got more (and gave up less) in the devil’s bargain that the Republican Party struck with Donald Trump.
McConnell’s reputation as a cold-blooded political killer is one of the reasons why his acknowledgement that Joe Biden will be our next president actually matters. “Today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. The president-elect is no stranger to the Senate. He has devoted himself to public service for many years,” McConnell said this week.
If he were known for being romantic, idealistic or quixotic, his proclamation would matter little to an increasingly cynical GOP. But McConnell’s willingness to say it signals to fellow Republicans still on the fence that the coast is clear.
Now, it’s easy to mock the fact that even Vladimir Putin beat him to the punch. But what good would it have done for McConnell to go earlier? McConnell knows that Trump is a child, which is to say that declaring Biden the winner before the Electoral College met would have only blown up the Georgia Senate election and created a cleavage in the GOP, thereby likely costing him his job as majority leader. Rather than trying to change Trump (a futile task), McConnell simply waited until after December 14 (“the Electoral College has spoken”) before stating what would be, for any institutionalist, the obvious.
If this sounds like a tepid defense of McConnell, that’s because it is. The sense that he is the only politician who plays hard-ball politics, and that everybody else is some Jesus-meets-JFK/Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is wildly exaggerated. The difference between McConnell and most politicians isn’t that he’s meaner, it’s that he is actually good at politics. And the reason for this has to do with his psychology. Long-time observers tell me they’ve never seen anyone more capable of separating his desired goal from his emotional feelings in that moment—that McConnell very much inhabits his assigned political role.
For his critics it may sound like a distinction without a difference, but there is a difference between not letting emotion distract you from your goals and being the Grim Reaper. He’s not sentimental, which makes him analytical, clear-headed, and goal-oriented. He’s also utterly unmoved by the opinions of his critics. He has honed this particular skill for decades, and it exasperates his opponents. And while it might be cold comfort for members of the resistance, a certain amount of solace can be found in knowing that Joe Biden will be dealing with a rational actor. McConnell isn’t crazy. Nor is he evil. He’s a pragmatist. A realist.
And this allowed him to survive even during the darkest times. Almost every Republican who tried to heroically stand up to Trump, pathetically cave in to Trump, or merely have it both ways, inevitably lost their jobs, their dignity, or both. Where’s Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, for example? Or Senator Jeff Flake? Or President Ted Cruz?
Meanwhile, McConnell will likely retain his gig, even after Trump vacates the White House. It was a dangerous game that was frustrating to watch, but McConnell never pretended to be anything other than who he is: a pragmatic operator who accepted the reality of what a Trump presidency would entail. He prioritized the acquisition of conservative judges (and he got them). And while we can certainly criticize McConnell’s methods (particularly the Antonin Scalia vacancy that was ultimately filled by Neil Gorsuch after Merrick Garland was shunted aside), his desired Supreme Court nominees have proven to be a bulwark against Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election.
Back in 2016, I interviewed McConnell at the American Enterprise Institute. We discussed his memoir, appropriately titled, The Long Game. If you want to understand his resilience, this is a man who has survived polio, punched out a neighbor bully as a kid, stood up as an early civil rights ally, climbed the greasy pole to majority leader, and beat back a Tea Party challenge when other establishment Republicans were falling. He has become an ironically iconic (“come at me, bro”/“Cocaine Mitch,” etc.) badass.
He’s also a figure on the right who has gone from being perceived as a squishy RINO to being a heroic Machiavelli. And now (thanks to his comments about Biden), he is back to RINO status again. Unlike most of us, McConnell couldn’t care less what people think. All he does is frigging get ahead. McConnell is playing a long game, and he still has a couple of innings left in him. The question is, how will those next few innings play out?
In my interview, McConnell told me the only “constructive bipartisan negotiations” he had during the Obama era were negotiated with “the vice president” (Joe Biden). So, there may be some chance for compromise in the New Year. Indeed, McConnell’s current reputation doesn’t reflect his history of cooperating with Democrats. Now, I’m not naive. I think it’s safe to say that any potential deals will have nothing to do with friendship or “old time’s sake.”
Mitch McConnell will make a deal if and when it is in the best interest of Mitch McConnell. But the thing is, in 2021, it just might be.