The Corner

The Courage of Mitch McConnell

Let us take a small break from castigating Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell for his decisive vote to raise the debt ceiling without Democratic concessions.

First, though, let it be noted that most conservatives profoundly disagree with his vote. I certainly am in that number. Indeed, I share a feeling that can only be described as approaching rage at the repeated inability of congressional Republicans to play their cards right and win any significant policy or political victories from a long series of budget-related battles. Many of us believe McConnell could have done more for the cause by voting against cloture, and thus delaying the debt-ceiling hike until conservatives had a chance to offer amendments. His failure to do so, we believe, amounted to a grievous surrender, grievously premature.

That said, a fair-minded observer must credit McConnell with an admirable form of political courage. Even if we fault him for exhibiting courage in the wrong direction, or on the wrong subjects, to the detriment of the conservative cause, we must acknowledge that it was indeed courage that he showed.

Why? Because when he cast the decisive vote, he knew that not most Republican activists would excoriate him for doing so, while he would garner not a single bit of extra support that aids his personal political situation. McConnell’s reelection is under serious threat from a conservative primary opponent, backed by lots of money and organizational help from several national conservative groups. He gains no additional Republican support in Kentucky, as far as I can tell, from his vote. Nor will it materially aid him (if he gets past the primary) in a tough general-election battle for which he is running barely neck and neck in the polls. Find me a single independent or moderate or undecided Kentucky voter who will cast a November ballot for McConnell because of this vote, who wouldn’t otherwise have done so, and I’ll show you a Martian riding a unicorn into the Bermuda Triangle and out again.

What McConnell did, in casting his regrettably decisive vote, was to “take one for the team,” as he analyzed the team’s best needs. We may strongly disagree with his analysis, but we cannot deny that McConnell knowingly sacrificed his own personal political interests for the sake of what he thought the best combination of policy and political outcomes would be for the Senate Republican Conference as a whole and for the country. There is no other explanation for it. McConnell held back and held back even longer from casting the deciding vote, desperately hoping that his vote would not be needed for cloture, clearly wanting not to give ammunition to his primary opponent. But when cloture remained one vote short, apparently ineluctably, McConnell stepped forward to put it over the top. 

To conservatives, McConnell’s vote felt like another in a series of punches to the kidney. But it wasn’t a cowardly vote; it was a courageous one. Sometimes courage can be misguided or even foolhardy, but that doesn’t make it any less courageous. Conservatives might think he is the wrong leader for Senate Republicans. We must, however, acknowledge that he did show leadership, and in doing so, afford him at least a grumbling form of respect.


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