Mitch McConnell's biggest challenge: Is the "Grim Reaper" nearing the final curtain?

Mitch's legacy is a damaged Senate and a thoroughly corrupted Republican Party. Losing in 2022 could be the end

Published September 25, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell, with the shadow of a grim reaper (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Mitch McConnell, with the shadow of a grim reaper (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Discovery comes most often not from finding something unknown or long hidden but from seeing afresh what has been on the table all along. — David McCullough

After all this time, is it still possible to underestimate Mitch McConnell's political skill and his destructive impact on our country?

The question came to mind most recently after reading a Washington Post article about the difficulties that Senate Republican candidates and the National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC) were having in fundraising. The article understandably buoyed the spirits of Democrats. But its closing paragraphs report that McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund was flush with cash, with more than $100 million as of June, and that McConnell had transferred $28 million to the struggling campaign of Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, while earmarking other large sums for the races anticipated to be most closely contested. More recently, a senior Republican operative with knowledge of GOP fundraising put the McConnell war chest at closer to $500 million.

At 80 years old, McConnell is finishing his 16th year as a Senate leader, tying the record of the great Mike Mansfield for longest tenure. No Senate leader — not even Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert A. Caro's legendary "master of the Senate" — has had more impact on the country's politics and history. McConnell began Barack Obama's presidency by opposing the economic stimulus legislation needed to prevent a second Great Depression, and waged a scorched-earth war against the Affordable Care Act. In Obama's last year, when Justice Antonin Scalia died, McConnell famously took the unprecedented step of refusing to allow the Senate to consider the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. As the election approached, McConnell blocked a proposal for congressional leaders to make a bipartisan condemnation of Russian interference in the election.

When Donald Trump became president, McConnell the partisan obstructionist became McConnell the partisan battering ram. He orchestrated the massive Trump tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and came within one vote of repealing the Affordable Care Act without hearings, committee action or consultation with any affected interest groups. He focused all his experience and energy on his highest priority: putting an extreme, right-wing majority on the Supreme Court, through a corrupted confirmation process. If not for McConnell's iron will and laser focus, Garland would be on the court today, while Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett would not. As McConnell said proudly: "A lot of what we have done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. They won't be able to do much about this for a long time to come." The constitutional right of women to choose an abortion and the power of states to regulate guns were quickly eviscerated, for openers.

At the end of Trump's presidency, McConnell denounced him forcefully: First on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, for spreading the big lie that the election had been stolen, and then a few weeks later on Feb. 13, when he gave a speech that any Democrat or Liz Cheney would have admired, a scorching attack on the former president for inciting the insurrection — even as he voted to acquit Trump on the lame grounds that a former president could not be impeached. Although Nancy Pelosi and others blasted him for his hypocrisy, McConnell's political calculation was clear enough. He wanted nothing more than to be rid of Trump, but the time was not right: Trump remained too strong. Better to wait until Trump withered away naturally, his hold on the Republican Party diminished from a damaging barrage of state and federal investigations.

Now, 19 months later, McConnell faces his toughest challenge. McConnell specializes in the politics of off-year elections; he counted on Biden, like Obama in 2010 and 2014, taking severe losses in the midterms, when a dissatisfied electorate is likely to turn on the president. But Biden's recent legislative victories and a fierce reaction to the Supreme Court's abortion decision have given the Democrats new momentum, presenting the possibility of an exception to the historical pattern. Trump's hold on the GOP base seems as strong as ever, particularly since the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago home inflamed his loyal supporters, and he remains furious at McConnell. Trump-endorsed candidates have won a string of contested primaries, handing McConnell what he most detests: extremist or arguably unqualified nominees in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Ohio, who will have difficulty winning a statewide general election.  

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McConnell's greatest strength — his enduring hold over his Senate Republican colleagues — comes from his mastery of the obscene dark-money system of unlimited contributions that he and the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United have created. The Republican donor base of wealthy individuals and corporations, including the banking and securities industry, fossil fuel companies and the NRA and gun manufacturers, deliver the money, and McConnell's leadership PAC and its 501(c)(4) affiliate, One Nation — both run by his former chief of staff Steven Law — spreads the money around to Republican candidates, while McConnell delivers the legislative and regulatory outcomes and judicial appointments that suit the donors'  purposes.

McConnell remains a master of the obscene dark-money system — but he lost the battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Unlike Liz Cheney, he went down without a fight.

McConnell is not a MAGA Republican, and he is working hard to remind the Republican donor base that he is their best bet to combat the purported liberal excesses of Biden and the Democrats. He has been on good behavior, breaking with his pattern of obstruction to help deliver bipartisan accomplishments such as infrastructure legislation, the CHIPS Act, the first modest but important gun safety legislation in decades, support for Ukraine and adding Finland and Sweden to NATO. Having captured the Supreme Court, McConnell may be trying to airbrush his legacy by being marginally constructive on other issues. More likely, McConnell has calculated that going to the voters with a record of total obstruction was not the best plan for the Senate GOP.

McConnell's problem is that he lost the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and unlike Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, he went down without a fight. With a position of extraordinary power in the party and the country, McConnell failed to convict Trump after his impeachments, failed to stop the big lie from spreading in the weeks after the election and has been conspicuously silent as Trump and his MAGA supporters have embraced full-scale election denial and advocated violence. McConnell seriously underestimated Trump's depravity and overestimated his own ability to control the situation. By now, he may have learned the wisdom of George Ball, the Kennedy administration diplomat who opposed the escalation of the Vietnam War: "He who rides the tiger cannot choose where he dismounts."

We should be crystal clear about one other point. If McConnell's fondest hope had been realized — Trump withering away into irrelevance — this year's Senate elections would still pose a crucial test. The principle of Occam's razor, which holds that the simplest explanation for any phenomenon is most likely the right one, applies here. Our politics were poisonous and our government was gridlocked well before Donald Trump became president. The accelerating downward spiral of the Senate and our government correlates 100% with McConnell's tenure as Republican leader. For Democrats, independents and disillusioned Republicans, every bad road leads to and from Mitch McConnell, an architect of division, a champion of inequality and the self-proclaimed "grim reaper" of progressive legislation. The 2022 Senate elections present the first opportunity for voters to pass judgment not only on Donald Trump and MAGA extremism, but also on McConnell and his Republican Senate colleagues, who consciously failed to protect our democracy from Trump's assault but gave us a radical Supreme Court majority prepared to take away our freedoms and erode our right to govern ourselves. Nothing would change American politics more profoundly and rapidly than a huge turnout that produces an expanded Democratic majority.

By Ira Shapiro

Ira Shapiro is the author of "The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America." His website is here.

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