As a pro-lifer who also believes Roe v. Wade was badly reasoned, I welcomed the news that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn the 50-year-old decision that legalized abortion throughout the U.S.
It’s also an opportunity to stop and give credit where it’s due: Mitch McConnell.
Since 1973, untold numbers of activists and politicians have dedicated their lives to the cause of the unborn. But success has many fathers and mothers, so before Mitch takes his victory lap, let’s look at who else played a pivotal hand in getting us to where we are today.
The much-heralded late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, could have retired on Barack Obama’s watch, potentially saving Roe. What is more, technological changes since the Roe decision—I’m thinking here of people posting ultrasound photos of their unborn baby on Facebook—had a huge impact in terms of changing hearts and minds.
The truth, though, is that any Republican president would likely have nominated justices like Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch. But once again, the lion's share of the credit belongs to McConnell (who is such a nimble political player that he’s still firmly entrenched as Senate Minority Leader even though Trump referred to him as a “dumb son of a bitch”).
Let me explain.
By blocking confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland (selected to replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in March 2016), until after the presidential election, McConnell gave conservatives who weren’t sold on Trump a compelling reason to show up in November. Aside from keeping Scalia’s seat in conservative hands (a vital move if you care about overturning Roe), McConnell raised the stakes for the 2016 election, guaranteeing that whoever won would get at least one Supreme Court nomination. Trump ended up getting three.
When you consider how close the 2016 election turned out to be, it’s entirely possible McConnell’s gambit pushed Trump over the top. As The Washington Post’s James Hohmann wrote in 2017, “The election was very narrowly decided, and many conservatives who live in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Detroit found Trump odious but rationalized voting for him because of the court.”
Cards on the table. When I first heard McConnell announce that the Supreme Court vacancy would not be filled in 2016, I thought it was a strategic mistake. I felt sure the press would have a field day pointing out the obstructionism. Wouldn’t it be shrewder to feign an open mind and perpetuate the charade of at least considering a Democratic nominee? This would buy Republicans time. Then, once President Obama nominated a liberal, you could still vote against him.
This is why Mitch McConnell will likely be the Senate Majority Leader again, and I will not. When President Obama ended up nominating Garland, an eminently qualified and seemingly decent man, McConnell’s preemptive announcement made more sense.
What makes this even more impressive is how quickly McConnell made this bold (and ultimately crucial) decision.
As Politico’s Burgess Everett and Glenn Thrush observed at the time, “The swiftness of McConnell’s statement—coming about an hour after Scalia’s death in Texas had been confirmed—stunned White House officials who had expected the Kentucky Republican to block their nominee with every tool at his disposal, but didn’t imagine the combative GOP leader would issue an instant, categorical rejection of anyone Obama chose to nominate.”
Of course, the irony is that many conservatives (and most Trump fans) see McConnell as a roadblock, not a savior—despite the fact that what may well turn out to be Trump’s signature achievement was largely due to McConnell’s shrewdness.
If you want to understand his resilience, this is a man who has survived polio, punched out a neighborhood bully as a kid, stood up as an early civil rights ally, made it to majority leader, and beat back a Tea Party challenge when other establishment Republicans were dropping left and right.
What keeps McConnell from being celebrated by his own side is partly the same thing that makes him effective at his job. He’s pragmatic and (to some extent) amoral. But as President Lyndon Johnson would probably have agreed, a well-run movement requires hardball political practitioners as much as it requires quixotic true believers.
Conservatives may well be on the five-yard line of finally winning a nearly 50-year struggle. If that happens, McConnell will arguably be the most significant pro-life leader in American history, even if American history doesn’t give him enough credit.
That’s okay. Publicity isn’t his thing. McConnell, like the pro-life movement, itself, was always playing The Long Game.