Mitch McConnell has had a long and distinguished career, but he may well be remembered for yesterday more than anything else.
He steered his caucus toward fulfilling its duty, explained himself in a thoughtful, cogent, and deeply felt speech, and then after the proceedings were disrupted by a pro-Trump mob, stirringly expressed his disgust and commitment to Congress completing its work. Bravo.
The vote to accept the election results, McConnell said in his early-afternoon speech, was “the most important” he had cast in 36 years. It was his duty, he said, to use it to reaffirm the “limited role” that Congress plays in our elections, to reject “a step that has never been taken in American history,” and to “muster the patriotic courage that our forebearers showed not only in victory, but in defeat.” The Senate, McConnell reminded his colleagues, “has a higher calling than an endless spiral of partisan vengeance.”
Vice President Pence — under incredible pressure from the president to declare him the winner, including an abusive presidential tweet around the same time some of the rioters in the Capitol Building were chanting, “Where is Pence?” — joined McConnell in rejecting Trump’s invitation to abuse his office.
The Founders understood that, try as we may, we will not always have good men running our institutions, and that it would be dangerous to assume otherwise. As a result of this understanding, the United States has been set thick with laws designed to limit and distribute power, to balance and check ambition, and to set in aspic certain timescales and mechanisms that govern how — and for how long — political authority is to be wielded.
Contrary to the insistence of the technocrats, the disagreements that we see on routine display in Washington do not represent mere “bickering,” but our system of government filtering and assimilating the profound differences of opinion that exist in the country at large. Properly understood, “obstruction” — one of the technocrats’ favorite words — is a synonym for “dissent.” But, as McConnell aptly noted, there is a world of difference between the regular working of the machine and the attempt to circumvent that machine completely — as President Trump and his enablers have been trying to do. One action shows us why Washington exists; the other would precipitate its “death spiral.”
Amid our national obsession with the presidency and its occupants, it can be easy to forget that it is Congress, and not the executive branch, that is supposed to be prime within the federal government. Congress can pass legislation without the executive, and, if it sees fit, it can remove him at will. The executive, by contrast, has little power beyond that which has been delegated to him, and it can do nothing of consequence to congressional staff.
Having watched Congress abdicate its responsibilities for so long, it was welcome to see Senator McConnell taking his elevated role as seriously as he did — and even more important to see him admonishing others in his party for playing so casually with fire. Referring openly to the machinations of Senators Cruz, Hawley, and co., McConnell counseled against the depravity of pretending that a vote against the election results was “a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing.”
In his notes from the Constitutional Convention, James Madison observed that the work of defending the new system would not be done by parchment, but by people. It is a sign of the enduring strength of the United States that those people not only exist but make up a solid majority. McConnell spoke for them yesterday.