White House

The Centrality of Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media on Capitol Hill, June 19, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Bannon thought he had the majority leader on the run, but he’s become the key player in Trump’s Washington.

It was only a little more than nine months ago that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fiercest critics thought his days were numbered. After insurgent Roy Moore won an Alabama Senate primary, former Breitbart CEO and White House strategist Steve Bannon boasted that more such challenges would ensure that McConnell’s days of dominating the Senate were numbered.

Those claims were cheered by many on the right, especially among Trump’s base. For them, McConnell was the ultimate Washington swamp dweller, and the hate they bore him equaled or even exceeded their bitter feelings toward Barack Obama and other Democrats. They were unimpressed by McConnell’s tactical skill in passing legislation, or in keeping bad legislation at bay during the Obama era. McConnell’s tenure leading Senate Republicans during the Obama administration was proof, in their view, that he, like the rest of the establishment, was a traitor to the cause of shaking up Washington and draining the swamp.

But as Trump unveiled Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his second pick for the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday evening, talk about GOP unrest or conservative grassroots anger toward McConnell is conspicuous by its absence. To the contrary, the majority leader’s place at the center of Trump’s Washington is no longer contested. Even those who might still bear McConnell ill will understand that without him, the solidly conservative court majority they’ve been looking forward to since Justice Kennedy announced his resignation would be impossible. Instead of dispensing with McConnell and the rest of the establishment, as Bannon and others hoped Trump would, the president must now acknowledge that McConnell is the indispensable man of his administration.

One reason for this is that Bannon quickly became a footnote to history after Moore lost a safe Republican Senate seat in the general election and Breitbart’s leading donors ousted him from the site. Bannon’s brief moment of ascendancy was always an illusion that had little to do with political reality. A more significant factor, however, is that the White House was always going to need McConnell if Trump wanted to accomplish anything during his presidency. Without McConnell, the two main domestic accomplishments of his time in office so far — the tax-cut bill and the swift confirmation of a record number of judicial nominees including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — would have been impossible.

Many Never Trump remnants and Democratic opponents of the president have rebuked Republicans such as McConnell for seeming to bow to Trump’s will. These criticisms are valid. House Speaker Paul Ryan, for instance, has swallowed hard and treated Trump as the captain of the GOP team, though his distaste for the president is as visceral as it is obvious. Yet the process that has unfolded in the past year has resulted in a Trump administration that has been conventionally conservative in terms of policies, even if the president’s hyperbolic rhetoric and Twitter account have set a different tone.

It is Trump’s Republican party (polls show that about 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s performance), but McConnell is no errand boy. Trump’s dependence on the majority leader is a matter of necessity and involves more than leaning on him for advice, as he reportedly did before making his latest SCOTUS pick. The GOP establishment has not shifted gears to adopt Trumpian populism. Instead, with a few key exceptions, such as trade policy and Russia, it is Trump who has become the pillar of normative conservatism on taxes and judges, as well as in letting McConnell largely call the shots on Senate tactics and efforts to maintain the GOP majority.

That wasn’t always obvious.

The triumph on taxes solidified McConnell’s stature, as did his success on judicial nominations.

Last summer, Trump and McConnell seemed at odds and reportedly hadn’t spoken to each other for weeks. Trump seemed determined to undermine McConnell’s efforts to nominate plausible candidates who could win rather than outliers who were certain losers such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Moore. The president also seemed to be flirting with the extreme tactic of a government shutdown to get funding for his border wall, a strategy that McConnell deprecated.

But by the end of his first year in office, Trump seemed, whether willingly or reluctantly, to understand that he would get nowhere without treating McConnell as a valued figure whose advice must be heeded. The triumph on taxes solidified McConnell’s stature, as did his success on judicial nominations. The latter was made possible by McConnell’s ruthless willingness to play hardball with Democrats over filibusters and the so-called blue slips that enabled senators to indefinitely block confirmations.

A president who had a deep knowledge of how Congress works or who was willing to put in the effort to learn how make deals with senators in the fashion of a Lyndon Johnson might have been able to hold his own against McConnell, or even overrule or bypass him. But Trump is not that sort of president. The longer he is in office, the more it’s clear how much he needs McConnell.

As McConnell shepherds another conservative onto the Supreme Court, even Trump’s populist base can’t complain about his record. McConnell has also had the satisfaction of seeing his Democratic counterpart, Senator Chuck Schumer, get the same treatment from his base as he himself suffered while Obama was president. Liberals enraged by Trump’s ability to govern, despite the #Resistance and Democrats’ desire to obstruct him, blame Schumer for Trump — much as some Tea Partiers blamed McConnell for not blowing up the Capitol in order to stop Obama.

The truth is, McConnell was always a thorn in the side of the Democrats. But plenty of Tea Partiers, who were just as frustrated about Obama’s ability to use executive authority as the Left is now about Trump, never acknowledged it. McConnell was obviously  impatient with Senator Ted Cruz and other firebrands who favored apocalyptic showdowns when Democrats were in control of the upper body, and that didn’t endear him to the party base.

It’s true that McConnell deserves his share of the blame, from the base and the GOP as a whole, for the failures of Trump’s first year, especially on Obamacare repeal, which GOP lawmakers had campaigned on and fundraised on for years. (The president’s inability to lead on this issue was also a significant factor.)

When Trump’s second SCOTUS pick is sworn in (as is likely), the unsung hero of the affair will again be, as it was with Gorsuch, McConnell.

But whatever his shortcomings, McConnell has proved to be a master manipulator of the Senate as he passed a tax bill and pushed through Trump’s judicial nominees at what has been, by D.C. standards, a rapid pace.

The House Republican caucus remains as divided against itself as it was the day Paul Ryan succeeded John Boehner as Speaker, but McConnell has skillfully herded the Senate cats. Even Trump knows it. While nothing in politics is forever, right now McConnell rules the Senate and has earned the respect if not the loyalty of the White House and most Republicans. When Trump’s second SCOTUS pick is sworn in (as is likely), the unsung hero of the affair will again be, as it was with Gorsuch, McConnell. The Trump White House might always be a circus, but the Senate ringmaster is the key to any future administration successes. Whether or not Trump likes it, all roads in Washington lead as much to McConnell as they do to the president. Trump can’t succeed without him.

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