Mitch McConnell's dark Supreme Court gamble: He thinks he can win — no matter what happens

Why Mitch believes he can't lose: Either he gets another right-wing justice, or he fires up the Republican base

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 21, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Getty/Salon)
President Donald Trump; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Getty/Salon)

Mitch McConnell's political interests are not identical to Donald Trump's, although there's certainly some overlap. That's the first and most important principle to keep in mind in trying to figure out what will happen in the epoch-shaping battle that now looms over not just the presidential campaign but over America's future — the battle to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

There's a second principle at work here too, nearly as important: McConnell never picks a fight he doesn't think he can win. Many things can be said about the memorably ruthless Senate majority leader, who already stands as one of the most important American political figures of the last 50 years, and few of them are complimentary. (According to rumor, plenty of those things have been said by members of his own caucus.) But no one has ever accused McConnell of being idealistic or standing on principle, or — worst of all, to his mind — of being politically naive.

In other words, if McConnell believed that a hell-for-leather push to confirm whatever Federalist Society-anointed, fundamentalist-friendly right-wing zombie Trump chooses to nominate (or, to be more accurate, is instructed to nominate) was likely to blow up in his face, he wouldn't do it. 

In fact, not doing it would seem to be the easier path, at first glance. Confirmation of the aforementioned expensively-educated, family-oriented undead Ringwraith is by no means a sure thing: It might not work at all, or it might come down to Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 deadlock in the U.S. Senate. (We'll return to those possibilities in due course.) 

Furthermore, shoving some replacement-level conserva-ghoul onto the court — almost before Ginsburg's loved ones have finished sitting shiva — seems like a great way to galvanize Democratic voters in November, who are already pretty well galvanized. If McConnell had grudgingly announced that the Senate would hold off on considering a new nominee until after the election, at least, editorial boards and cable-news talking heads across the land would have knelt to kiss the hem of his garments, while declaiming tearfully and at great length on the quiet, masculine strength of America's institutions. For David Brooks, Brit Hume, Mitt Romney and Van Jones, it would be a moment to set aside their almost-entirely-insignificant differences and find their happy place. (TV idea: Those four guys share a beach bungalow in Panama City? Could be fun!)

But you see, Mitch McConnell doesn't give a shit about any of that. He cares about winning, full stop. Proceeding from the principles I outlined above, I think it's a safe bet that McConnell has gamed all this out and concluded that playing nice with the normies is 100% a losing proposition, but that trying to jam through Trump's moon-calf nominee will work to his benefit no matter what happens.

Let's unpack that a little, because I know it sounds illogical. Unlike the president of the United States, McConnell can read and can count, and is highly cognizant of political reality. He understands several things about the current situation. One of those is that absent some major change in the dynamics of the presidential race, Trump is likely to lose to Joe Biden in November. Another is that with at least four Republican incumbents trailing in the polls, his own Senate majority is in serious jeopardy. (Four Republican losses, coupled with Sen. Doug Jones' likely defeat in Alabama, would leave the Senate at 50-50 — a Democratic majority if Kamala Harris becomes vice president.) 

If you've paid any attention at all to this self-appointed Machiavellian genius over the recent course of his storied career, you will already know that McConnell cares a great deal about that second problem, and not quite as much as one might think about the first. Sure, he'd rather have a Republican president than a Democrat, all things being equal. But in fact McConnell has already extracted maximum advantage out of Trump's first term — dozens of young, conservative federal judges; a corporate-friendly, economically ruinous rewrite of the tax code; widespread industrial deregulation — and quite plausibly sees Trump himself as a liability at this point.

In peering at the political realm through his dark crystal, McConnell sees the Ginsburg vacancy as a double-edged sword — but both edges look equally sharp to him. He knows better than you and I that actually getting Trump's nominee on the court is an iffy proposition. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the only Republican to oppose Justice Brett Kavanaugh's nomination, has said she will not vote to confirm a new justice before the election. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, clinging to her expression of perpetual worry and the last waterlogged fragments of her erstwhile image as a bipartisan "moderate," has apparently joined her. (I say "apparently" because Susan's gotta pay cash; her credit's no good.)

We can assume that the above-referenced Mitt Romney, currently a senator from Utah, would rather ride atop the car with the family dog than board the Trump train at this point. (It's both hilarious and pathetic that Romney, of all humans on the planet, has become a #Resistance hero. But there we are!) That leaves 50 Republican senators whom Mitch can kinda-sorta-probably count on to vote for literally anything the ravening Trump horde demands, up to and including making the wearing of face masks punishable by death, designating QAnon the national religion and declaring the White House property of the Trump Organization.

As stated above, with Pence casting the deciding vote, that could well be enough to seat some unbearably wholesome, Altoid-breath far-right nutjob on the Supreme Court, which would certainly mean the end of Roe v. Wade, the end of privacy protections for contraception and consensual adult activity of various kinds, and almost limitless legal carve-outs for racists, homophobes, fanatical Christians and other troglodytes.

McConnell's not dumb; he knows that outcome would drive liberals and progressive to the polls in large numbers. Trump would get crushed (which Mitch might not mind so much) and Republicans could easily lose six or seven Senate seats. Hell, McConnell himself might even lose in Kentucky, although that's toward the outer reaches of possibility. (If you're giving your money to Amy McGrath, his Democratic opponent, you're pretty much lighting it on fire.)

But what a way to go! It would be the right's biggest political victory since at least the Newt Gingrich midterms of 1994, and probably since the election of Ronald Reagan. Furthermore, McConnell doesn't believe the Democrats have the stomach, or the votes, to undo his black magic by expanding the Supreme Court or pursuing other major reforms. Show of hands: Who actually, seriously thinks he's wrong about that?

And then there's the other edge of the sword: What if it doesn't work? What if some other Republican senator with a faint vestigial connection to psychological normalcy — Ben Sasse of Nebraska or Chuck Grassley of Iowa or someone else who is temporarily able to set aside pants-pissing terror of the Trumpian legions — refuses to go along? Honestly, I halfway believe that's the outcome McConnell is banking on.

Because then Trump's nominee — the Christian soldier destined to smite the baby-killers — will either be withdrawn or voted down on the Senate floor, amid scenes of intense (if manufactured) drama. Liberals will celebrate, of course, and understandably so. But it could be a pyrrhic victory: Nothing could possibly rile up the evangelical base and drive Republican turnout more effectively than the sense that a great victory was snatched away — yet again! — by the George Soros-funded pedophile elite who have persecuted our president so unfairly, visited a fake pandemic upon real Americans and sent tattooed antifa warriors to burn down the malls.

Mitch McConnell doesn't have to say any of that stuff out loud. He certainly doesn't believe any of it, but that doesn't matter. If that's his plan — to win by winning or win by losing — let's give the man credit: It's a work of dark genius, fully worthy of his diabolical reputation. It might be enough to give Donald Trump a fighting chance (not that Mitch particularly cares) and it might just be enough to save a vulnerable purple-state Republican senator or two and allow McConnell to cling to power, like a malicious goblin digging his nails into a slanted roof and refusing to tumble off.

The only flaw in McConnell's flawless plan is that, try as he may, he cannot actually control how things turn out, and that the benighted and confused American electorate will — at least hypothetically, or theoretically — have the final say. That part must be driving him nuts.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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