Politics & Policy

Mitch McConnell Is Winning the Long Game

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leads a press conference on Capitol Hill, March 6, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The oft-criticized Senate majority leader’s most consequential successes will pay conservatives dividends for decades to come.

Franklin Roosevelt, afflicted by the disease at age 39, died in April 1945 at the polio-recuperation facility he had created in Warm Springs, Ga. Before then, Mitch McConnell, living in Five Points, Ala., began going there for treatment for the polio that struck him at age two, in 1944.

After paralysis by polio, an inner iron undergirded the ebullience of FDR, who hitherto had relied on privilege and charm. McConnell, who had none of the former and is parsimonious with the latter, acquired while overcoming polio the patience and grit that on June 12 will make him the longest-serving leader of Senate Republicans, surpassing Bob Dole.

Since McConnell and his mother, returning from two years of intermittent treatments in Warm Springs, bought his first pair of walking shoes, he has played “the long game,” which is the title of his 2016 memoir. In his 33 Senate years, he has become a major figure in the history of two of the government’s three branches — the legislative, and now the judicial as he oversees the reshaping of federal courts.

If McConnell’s low emotional metabolism allowed him to become agitated, he would do so about complaints — mostly from people inattentive to events or uninformed about possibilities — that Republican control of the two political branches is not producing results. McConnell says:

The largest tax reduction in 31 years has contributed to the best economy in 18 years. Defense spending is up, many Dodd-Frank banking rules and the Obamacare individual mandate have been repealed. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, blocked for 38 years, has been approved, as has a reconfigured National Labor Relations Board, a source of much Obama-administration mischief. The Congressional Review Act, under which Congress can disapprove many regulations issued by federal agencies, has been used 19 times since it was enacted in 1996 — 18 of them in this Congress.

This, says McConnell, constitutes the best 18 months of center-right governance in his Senate career, which began when Ronald Reagan’s second term did. There also are the judges.

Some conservative warriors in the bleachers — people inordinately proud of their muscular spectatorship — deny McConnell’s toughness. Bruised Democrats know better. By preventing a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland — invoking a rule first suggested by Democratic senators Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer: Supreme Court justices should not be confirmed in presidential-election years — McConnell kept open the seat of Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. The election produced a president unburdened by jurisprudential convictions but deferential to the Federalist Society and other conservatives who think about such things. Furthermore, the White House counsel’s office, which oversees judicial nominations, is an island of professionalism attached to a seedy carnival.

To reshape the circuit courts of appeal (of 179 authorized positions, 21 have been filled in 18 months, and there are 14 current or announced vacancies), McConnell ended requiring a supermajority to stop filibusters of Supreme Court nominees. Filibusters had always been possible but were never practiced. Not even, McConnell notes, during the ferocious fight over the nomination of now-justice Clarence Thomas. This nomination went to the Senate floor without the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation and barely passed (52–48), but was not filibustered.

To prevent Republicans from reciprocating with filibusters against Obama’s packing-by-enlargement of the nation’s second-most important court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Democrats changed Senate rules to bar filibusters of judicial nominees other than those for the Supreme Court. McConnell removed that pointless exemption to make possible the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch.

McConnell is amenable to ending filibusters of nominations to executive and judicial positions (the Senate, he says, is “in the personnel business”). But without filibusters of legislation, he says, the nation might have socialized medicine, guaranteed government jobs, card-check workplace unionization, a ban on right-to-work laws, and other afflictions. He notes that since popular election of senators began in 1914, Republicans have never had more than 60 senators. And in the last 100 years, Democrats have simultaneously held the presidency, the House, and the Senate for 34 years, Republicans for only 20.

Almost 30 years after the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan still shapes events because of his nomination of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often has been 20 percent of a court majority. Three decades from now, McConnell will be shaping the nation through judges who today are in their 40s, some of whom might be destined to be Neil Gorsuch’s colleagues. This is the long game.

© 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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