Politics & Policy

Who’s the More Effective Conservative?

Sen. Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill, November 9, 2017. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
Mitch McConnell has done the heavy lifting to facilitate the Trump administration’s transformation of the federal bench. Steve Bannon wants to give us Roy Moore.

According to Steve Bannon, the Republican establishment is blocking President Donald Trump’s agenda. That’s why he’s leading an insurgency whose ambitious goal is nothing less than the transformation of the GOP from a coalition led by mainstream conservatives like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to something that will better reflect the spirit of the Trump campaign and Breitbart.com, the website he runs.

The bitterness of the civil war Bannon has helped incite is on display in the Alabama Senate race, where he and Breitbart are doubling down on accused sexual predator Roy Moore’s candidacy at precisely the moment when everyone else in the GOP is disavowing the same. To Bannon and many of his followers, the belief that politics is war by other means dictates defending anyone the dreaded establishment opposes, for Trump’s sake. Indeed, Moore’s maverick persona makes him all the more attractive to them because they know the twice-deposed Alabama judge is about as likely to caucus with the Democrats as he is to cooperate with McConnell.

But if the dispute between Breitbart and McConnell is so bitter that it compels a defense of someone like Moore, it might behoove those grassroots activists to think about what the majority leader and his caucus are doing to advance the one element of the Trump agenda that most on the right have always considered a priority: putting conservatives on the federal courts.

As the New York Times reported on the front page of their Sunday edition this past weekend, the Trump administration has outpaced all of its predecessors in terms of the swiftness with which it has nominated and confirmed federal judges. So far, eight of Trump’s 18 nominees to the federal appellate courts have been pushed through, with a ninth just approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and on his way to certain confirmation by the full Senate. And as the Times documents, Trump’s nominees are more conservative than those put forward by past Republican presidents.

As they cheer these victories and gloat over the quotes from horrified liberals in the Times feature, conservatives should recognize that they have one man to thank above all others: the same Mitch McConnell who Bannon claims is sabotaging Trump. How is it possible that the man who is responsible for these confirmations, the man who did as much as anyone to block Barack Obama’s liberal agenda, is considered a villain to conservatives?

McConnell is in many ways the epitome of what passes for the Republican establishment these days. He’s been in Washington a long time and has shown little patience for hard-line conservatives like Ted Cruz who were more interested in grandstanding than in keeping the machinery of government moving. He also deserves some, though not all, of the blame for the failures of the Republican caucus during the Obama administration and in Trump’s first year. But in seizing Republicans’ rare window of opportunity to remake the judiciary in their preferred image, McConnell is hitting it out of the park.

Without skilled operators like McConnell, nothing can ever get done.

As the Times story details, McConnell has been able to rally and unite the GOP caucus around Trump’s judicial nominees in a way that he wasn’t able to unite it around an effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. As a result, Trump’s nominees are being pushed through the fast lane to confirmation with remarkable efficiency.

Admittedly, some of the credit for this success also belongs to the Senate Democrats’ former leader, Harry Reid. In 2013, Reid was frustrated with Republican opposition to Obama’s uniformly liberal nominees and decided to eliminate the filibuster for all federal judicial nominations except the Supreme Court. That made confirmations possible by a simple majority rather than a filibuster-proof 60 votes. Reid’s “nuclear option” paved the way for McConnell to push through Trump’s nominees without much trouble.

That said, conservatives still owe McConnell a debt of gratitude. When it comes to judicial nominees, he has proved himself to be an able conservative leader without whom Trump would not have managed to keep his promises. A governing coalition composed only of bomb-throwing Breitbart acolytes like Moore is no governing coalition at all. Without skilled operators like McConnell, nothing can ever get done. In demanding his ouster, Bannon is proving himself a rebel leader without a genuine conservative cause.


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