The Misery of Mitch McConnell


For a good laugh, or rather cry, zip backward to the beginning of 2014, when Democrats still had control of the Senate, and listen to Mitch McConnell’s lamentations about the way they were doing business.

“Major legislation is now routinely drafted not in committee but in the majority leader’s conference room,” he declaimed on the Senate floor. “Bills should go through committee.” He pledged that if Republicans were “fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

In a speech a few months later at the American Enterprise Institute, he said, “The greatest way to ensure stability in our laws is to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate in some way in the passage.” He railed about the lack of transparency from Democrats and the damage they’d done “to the spirit of comity and respect that the public has every right to expect from their leaders.”

“If Republicans were fortunate enough to reclaim the majority in November, I assure you, my friends, all of this would change,” he vowed anew.

Republicans were fortunate enough. McConnell became the majority leader. And if you can find committee hearings, transparency, full participation, comity, respect or anything akin to good faith in the way he just tried to ram his health care bill through the chamber, then I want you on the hunt for the yeti and, pretty please, the Fountain of Youth.

His approach may prove fatal: On Tuesday, he had to postpone any vote on the legislation until after July 4.

Then again, perhaps he isn’t really chasing success. One intriguing theory is that he has no yen for stripping insurance from tens of millions of Americans and having it come back to bite Republicans. But he must go convincingly through the motions, lest President Trump mewl and right-wing donors carp that he isn’t seizing his best chance to drive a stake through Obamacare’s heart.

Whatever the case, it’s a sorry turn for a man who paid such lip service to the courtesy and collaboration that supposedly distinguished the Senate, which he did, in his way, seem to revere.

Unlike more telegenic colleagues, he never yearned to be president. He aspired to recognition as a master of the world’s “greatest deliberative body,” as the Senate is often described.

But since Trump’s inauguration, that body has been a sort of couch potato, slow to rouse to its rightful labors. Committees aren’t busily marking up bills.

And what McConnell has displayed isn’t mastery so much as bullying. Bye-bye to the 60 votes needed to proceed to confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee. He did away with that to smooth Neil Gorsuch’s passage.

Farewell to deliberation. McConnell did away with that, too. Back when the Senate considered Obamacare, there were scores of hearings and exhaustive analyses of the evolving legislation’s text. McConnell held no hearings for his bill. He spurned feedback from outside groups. An uncomely cabal of 13 men patched it together in the equivalent of a subterranean bunker, with the initial hope of a vote just a week after they emerged from hiding and brought it into the light.

I asked two former senators, a Republican and a Democrat, what they made of all this. Both mourned a long, steady erosion of bipartisanship that McConnell hardly owns.

“I actually think he’s done as well as he could with the cards he’s been dealt,” the Republican, Judd Gregg, told me, saying that McConnell is no doubt correct in his assumption that Democrats aren’t eager to work with him. They’re too consumed by contempt for Trump.

The Democrat, Bob Kerrey, characterized McConnell as a “creature of these very partisan times” who in some ways merely reflects them. But Kerrey said that when McConnell blocked any vote on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for the better part of a year, “he went way too far.”

Until now, McConnell has evaded the degree of demonization that you might expect. He’s too pale a blur to arouse passion, and as an object of fascination, he can hold neither bow nor arrow to the dimpled deer hunter who reigns over the other side of the Capitol.

The tote board of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hypocrisies is more painstakingly maintained, and during the 2016 campaign, every step of his tango with Trump was scrutinized to smithereens. McConnell receded. He was the Jan Brady to Ryan’s Marcia.

But he has always been the ruthless one. In 2010, when he was the minority leader, he stated unabashedly that Republicans’ pre-eminent goal was to send Obama packing after one term.

Harry Reid, a Democrat, was then the majority leader, and after he eliminated the filibuster for all executive branch nominations apart from those for the Supreme Court, McConnell said, “I think it’s a time to be sad about what’s been done to the United States Senate.”

It was. But because of McConnell, it’s a time now to be sadder still.

Credit: Frank Anthony Bruni