Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) listens to a question during a press conference following the weekly policy meeting at the U.S. Capitol Dec. 1, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

After failing on health care, McConnell’s reputation takes a hit


When Donald Trump sat down with the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, TV preacher Pat Robertson noted in passing, “Mitch McConnell is a tactician of great skill.”

This is certainly the reputation the Senate Majority Leader has cultivated over the course of many years. McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, knows the institution and its procedures as well as anyone, and knows how to navigate difficult legislative waters. For months, many have assumed that Republicans would eventually pass a far-right health care bill, largely because of McConnell’s skills.

But with the party’s gambit apparently collapsing, Politico noted just how “serious” a defeat this is for the Senate Republican leader.

It’s … a blow to McConnell’s reputation as a master legislator and raises doubts in the White House about what Senate Republicans can actually deliver for President Donald Trump. McConnell, like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), finds himself caught between the factions in his own party. And like Ryan, McConnell hasn’t demonstrated that he knows how to resolve the dispute.

“This is an impossible hand,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s closest ally, of the party’s fragile majority.

Well, not really. Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House, and they created a process in which their long-sought priority could advance with 50 votes instead of 60. As has become clear, that’s challenging, but calling it “impossible” is a stretch.

Regardless, McConnell, his reputation as a legislative mastermind notwithstanding, couldn’t make it happen. His task was to thread a political needle, satisfying competing constituencies within his party, and the Majority Leader couldn’t find a way.

Along the way, McConnell managed to not only undermine his reputation, but also to alienate some of his allies. When an NBC News reporter asked Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) yesterday whether he still has faith in McConnell as the Senate GOP’s leader, the Wisconsin senator wouldn’t say. “I don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward,” Johnson answered.

What we’re learning about McConnell is the scope of his skillset. The problem is not with the senator’s competence, per se – the guy got away with stealing a Supreme Court seat, and that’s not easy – but rather with the limits of his abilities.

In the Obama era, McConnell proved himself as a brilliant opponent of progress. The Kentucky senator showed that when it comes to blocking a rival’s priorities, McConnell knew how to take obstructionism to levels unseen in the American tradition – and with great effect.

But that makes McConnell a proficient Minority Leader, not an adept policymaker. It’s easier to stand in others’ way than it is to govern, and McConnell is vastly more competent focusing on the former than the latter. It’s time for the political world to adjust its assumptions accordingly: the Senate Republican leader is a blocker, not a builder, which poses a problem when the party is trying to overhaul the nation’s health care system.