In the Kingdom of Mitch
The worst political leaders have a way of unifying their opposition. George W. Bush, with utter lack of self-awareness, campaigned on the delusion he could be “a uniter, not a divider.” By the end of his presidency, the nation was united in the judgment that his two terms had been a divisive and bloody mess of war and financial calamity. When Trump’s corruption and incompetence eventually drag the economy down, he’ll face the same reckoning.
But there’s another leader who has great unifying potential. At times he seems capable of the impossible: bringing America’s centrists, liberals, and leftists into a sincere if tenuous alliance. Yes, we stand together in our mutual contempt for the loathsome, unctuous, chinless invertebrate known as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We despised him when he made it the defining cause of his career to fend off any kind of campaign finance reform and to protect the power of the wealthy to buy whatever politicians and policies they saw fit. We despised him when he made up a new rule that prevented a twice-elected president from choosing a Supreme Court justice in his final year. We despised him as recently as last week, when he stated that a package of anti-corruption and election-reform legislation that passed the House will not get a hearing in the Senate “because I get to decide what we vote on.”
The cynicism that oozes from McConnell was never more apparent than in the early weeks of this year when, after repeatedly warning Trump against declaring a national emergency to fund a border wall, he then announced he would support the rogue president’s craven power grab. The emergency declaration, he said, “is the predictable and understandable consequence of Democrats’ decision to put partisan obstruction ahead of national interest.” That’s a sentence-wide glimpse into what makes McConnell so detestable. When called to defend his views in public, he reveals himself not as the stately Bluegrass compromiser found in his own imagination, but as the unscrupulous lackey of a brazen and unstable president.
Yes, we stand together in our mutual contempt for the loathsome, unctuous, chinless invertebrate known as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
A while ago, when I confessed my splenetic feelings about McConnell to a friend who is a veteran Washington journalist, he reacted with a verbal shrug: “He’s just a pure partisan.” Or is he something worse? After McConnell caved to Trump on the national emergency, former Democratic speechwriter Michael A. Cohen assailed the Senate leader as a “Republican nihilist” in the New York Review of Books. “He is a remorselessly political creature, devoid of principle, who, more than any figure in modern political history has damaged the fabric of American democracy,” Cohen wrote. “That will be his epitaph.”
Cohen cited a previous NYRB consideration, by historian Christopher R. Browning, that likened McConnell to Paul von Hindenburg, the German president who aided Hitler’s rise to power. “If the U.S. has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell,” Browning wrote. “He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could.”
Centrists such as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have seen McConnell as a key figure in accommodating the extremism of the Republican Party and of its destruction of long-prevailing rules and norms. For his obstructionist role in the Obama era, Ornstein wrote last year, McConnell “will go down in history as a villain.” More pointedly, perhaps, writers on the left have also indicted McConnell. Our own Baffler contributor Maximillian Alvarez wrote in this space almost two years ago of his “unhealthy obsession” with McConnell’s odiousness. “Everyone knows McConnell is a slimy hypocrite,” Alvarez wrote. “He is the soulless corpse that’s left when every fantasy about how politics is supposed to be is stripped away.”
Everyone also knows that eventually his time will pass (the man turned 77 last month) and so we speculate about what his lasting legacy will be. Political scientist David Faris, in last year’s It’s Time to Fight Dirty, called McConnell “Kentucky’s dollar-store Machiavelli” and speculated that “future historians . . . will almost certainly write about Mitch McConnell the way today’s scholars write about Joseph McCarthy or Andrew Johnson—as dangerous scoundrels whose machinations imperiled both the American democratic experiment as well as vital civil rights for millions of people.”
Politics is an exercise in ever-shifting coalitions; it’s easier for factions to unify in opposition than to stand together in power. The widespread denunciations of McConnell among moderates, liberals, and leftists doesn’t mean there aren’t strong differences in imagining what kind of partisanship is required, or what principles matter most, in the post-McConnell era to come. He’s up for reelection next year, so if by some blessed miracle Kentucky voters would call him home the nation would be forever grateful. Barring that, if Democrats could at least regain the majority in the Senate in 2020, McConnell would be relegated to his former status as chief obstructionist of the minority party.
There is a dream shared by centrist Democrats, and even by a mouse nest of Republicans, that the comity and bipartisanship of Senate days of yore can be restored. The Republican coalition has proved more stable than Democratic ones lately, yet after the Senate Leader announced his support for Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, a few cracks in the GOP façade appeared. McConnell’s fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul came out against the emergency as the kind of “extraconstitutional executive action” that is wrong “no matter which party does them.” North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis acknowledged the hypocrisy of his fellow Republicans who reject Obama’s “executive overreach” but then quickly roll over for Trump. Tillis conjured a future “President Bernie Sanders declaring a national emergency to implement the radical Green New Deal,” or a “President Elizabeth Warren declaring a national emergency to shut down banks and take over the nation’s financial institutions.” (Hmm . . . Would you shut the banks down if you were going to take them over?) “I don’t believe in situational principles,” Tillis said, making a statement that many Washington pols might applaud but few could honor.
But, rest assured, if the day ever came when a President Sanders could invoke emergency powers to push through measures addressing climate change, you’d have untold numbers of centrist Democrats wringing their hands. It’s hard to imagine Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer standing behind President Sanders as he attempted an end-run around Congress. Why would such Democrats have qualms? Because they believe in restoring the norms that once prevailed in Washington. “This is the kind of thing Mitch McConnell would do!” they might say. “That’s not who we are.”
The embodiment of this Democratic dream of restored bipartisanship is Joe Biden. It was perfectly in character for him to recently refer to Vice President Mike Pence as “a decent guy.” He assumes that Americans deeply yearn to see Democrats and Republicans get along—which is the kind of assumption that has never burdened Mitch McConnell for a moment. No doubt, too, Biden considers McConnell a decent guy; they got along fine when Biden was in the Senate, and when Biden as vice president was Obama’s emissary to Congressional leaders. McConnell even made a sentimental speech paying tribute to Biden in his final days as vice president.
The Republican Party today is an extremist organization that wants nothing to do with a good-faith cooperative governing relationship with Democrats.
Yet the idea that “regular order” can be achieved in the Senate, and by extension that a kinder and gentler politics will benefit the Democratic Party, is roundly derided on the left. And for good reason: it’s a terrible misreading of what has happened to Congress and to American politics since the Reagan era. It’s a signal that many Democrats do not understand the nature of the intransigent opposition they face, which could aptly be called McConnellism. They do not understand that the Republican Party today is an extremist organization that wants nothing to do with a good-faith cooperative governing relationship with Democrats.
It’s especially charming to hear a few Republicans voice scruples about “situational principles.” Have they slept through the last several decades? Do they know anything at all about the career of Mitch McConnell? This is a man who signed up a rising television consultant named Roger Ailes for his 1984 campaign (well before Ailes founded Fox News). As Alec MacGillis noted in his 2014 portrait of McConnell, The Cynic, Ailes already had a reputation for being unscrupulous and favored the motto “Whatever it takes.” You can draw up a long roster of operatives and consultants in the “whatever it takes” school and you will come to know the soul of the modern GOP: Joe McCarthy’s lawyer Roy Cohn (who schooled a young Trump); Haldeman and Ehrlichman (and all of Nixon’s henchmen); Reaganite zealots like Michael Deaver, Oliver North, and Elliott Abrams; Bush family consiglieri like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove; and the general-purpose hacks like Jack Abramoff, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone. “Whatever it takes,” for many of the above, included felonies. Machiavelli and McConnell had a baby, and they called it Donald Trump.
How do Democrats (and democrats) reject Republican-style McConavellianism, avoid the tar pit of “whatever it takes,” and find their way to a legitimate partisanship? The question will dominate intra-party struggles over the next few years. The division shaping up in the post-McConnell era is between what we might call the Mouse and Chump Club, represented by the likes of Tillis and Biden, and whatever is now taking shape on the left—the We Shall Not Be Moved Coalition, or the Out With the Oligarchs Movement, or the Congressional Backbone Caucus, populated by the new-energy Democrats who understand what they are really up against.
In It’s Time to Fight Dirty, political scientist David Faris outlines the kind of principled partisan spirit that will be required to reverse the damage of the Trump-McConnell era. Faris notes that during this period of Republican minority rule, which rests on concerted efforts to suppress the vote, gerrymander districts, and unleash the power of Big Money, we have been saddled with so many burdensome structural obstacles to fair representation that Democrats must now be courageous and creative in their bid to restructure the system. The only way to reverse the damage is to gain power in Congress and then use that power to enact sweeping changes.
It’s instructive to compare Faris’s book with an important antecedent, Daniel Lazare’s The Frozen Republic, published in 1996. Lazare saw clearly where things were headed:
Since 1994, Congress has been in the grips of Republican zealots eager to return to the days of Ozzie and Harriet and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Police are more brutal than in any comparable country, prisons are filled to overflowing, and social policies in general grow harsher and more punitive with every passing year. Yet in no country is the range of accepted political debate more narrow.
While Lazare focuses on all the barriers erected by the constitution to adapting the country to modern conditions, Faris conjures a raft of changes that could be made by a Democratic majority in Congress without the need for constitutional amendment—or as Lazare ultimately imagines, the wholesale rejection of the constitution itself. Granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico would help counteract the overrepresentation of rural red states in the Senate. He suggests some ideas that seem far-fetched, such as breaking California into seven states. Perhaps it would be more practical for the Democratic Party to run strong populists in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas and win back a few states that way?
But where Faris makes a material contribution is in recognizing the long-term damage McConnell and Trump are doing by continuing to pack the courts with right-wing judges. While everyone remembers McConnell’s blockade of Obama’s Merrick Garland nomination to the Supreme Court, his obstructionism went well beyond that: as Charles Homans noted in a January New York Times Magazine profile of McConnell, by the time Garland was denied even a hearing, McConnell had blocked appointments to seventeen circuit court seats and eighty-eight federal district court seats. Trump and McConnell are busily filling those seats now. As Homans wrote: “In the coming years, battles over voting rights, health care, abortion, regulation and campaign finance, among other areas, are less likely to be decided in Congress than in the nation’s courthouses. In effect, McConnell has become a master of the Senate by figuring out how to route the Republican agenda around it.”
If you want to be serious about the need for a new Backbone Caucus, think about this scenario. Suppose Trump is still in the White House into 2020, and suppose further that another Supreme Court vacancy opens up in an election year. Recall that Antonin Scalia died in February of 2016. By the McConnell rule, any vacancy that occurs after February of 2020 would not be filled. What are the chances that Republicans would honor that precedent? Approximately zero? It’s not hard to imagine McConnell pushing another GOP nominee through even if it were a month before the election. It’s not hard to imagine he’d push one through even if Trump lost and he could get it done in a lame-duck session.
Why should a Democratic Congress refrain from undoing the Reagan-Bush-Trump Legacy?
Faris makes the argument that a stacked Supreme Court will require Democrats to use their power in Congress to add seats to that court, noting that there’s no constitutional stipulation the High Court be limited to nine seats. As Faris notes, Neil Gorsuch and now Brett Kavanaugh are “the leading edge of a conservative plan to maintain the Republican Party’s grip on American society even if voters reject them repeatedly.” The same goes for GOP plans to push as many other federal court nominees through while Trump is still president. Republican-leaning theorists have themselves floated the idea of adding hundreds of district court and appellate court judgeships as a way of “Undoing President Barack Obama’s Judicial Legacy.” Why should a Democratic Congress refrain from undoing the Reagan-Bush-Trump Legacy?
That recent New York Times Magazine profile was entitled “Mitch McConnell Got Everything He Wanted.” But what he wanted does not have majority support. In public policy he is devoted to only three goals: skew the courts, cut taxes and regulations to please corporations and the wealthy, and block any attempts to democratize politics. In his practice of politics, he is devoted to only two causes: the preservation of Republican advantage and the preservation of Mitch McConnell’s power.
Yet, it’s fatalistic to see this Kentucky conniver as “the gravedigger of democracy.” It’s possible that his “Republican nihilism” is destroying a calcified political order that deserves to be junked. If hardheaded democrats of all stripes understand that McConnellism has opened the door to their own bold and necessary counter-measures, McConnell’s true legacy could be exactly what he’s devoted his entire career to thwarting: a government that reverses political and economic inequality and opens new paths to democratic participation. McConnell, if handled in the manner he deserves, could be the accidental father of a new politics that breaks up the dread coalition he’s devoted to holding together: that unlikely partnership between moral absolutists and cynical self-interested opportunists, all devoted to “situational principles” whenever it preserves their power.