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Mitch McConnell secures an ignoble place in political history

Updated
As the contentious drama surrounding the Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination unfolded in the Senate last week, many found themselves asking, “How did things get this bad? How did the breakdowns in our politics become so severe?”

These are, of course, complex questions with multifaceted answers, but it’s not unreasonable to start the conversation by taking a closer look at one individual. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank had an important piece over the weekend on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whom the columnist described as a man who effectively “broke America.”
No man has done more in recent years to undermine the functioning of U.S. government. His has been the epitome of unprincipled leadership, the triumph of tactics in service of short-term power. […]

McConnell is no idiot. He is a clever man who does what works for him in the moment, consequences be damned.
Whether one finds McConnell’s work outrageous is a matter of perspective. If you’re a myopic Republican partisan, the GOP’s Senate leader has simply taken every possible opportunity to maximize his party’s interests, using the levers of power at his disposal. McConnell, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t committed any crimes in his partisan pursuits, so much as he pushed the limits in ways without precedent in the American tradition, ignoring any sense of norms or institutional limits.

And to that end, McConnell has been quite successful, as last week’s developments helped prove. Gorsuch’s confirmation is arguably the White House’s most important victory to date, and it happened because the Senate Majority Leader orchestrated a ridiculous, 14-month long scheme to steal a Supreme Court seat from one administration to hand it to other. It was almost impressive in its duplicity.

But if you’re not a myopic Republican partisan, and your principal concern is with the health of the American political system, McConnell’s work has earned him a role as one of this generation’s most consequential villains.

It was McConnell who changed Senate norms to require 60-vote supermajorities on every piece of legislation of any significance.

It was McConnell who was responsible for creating the modern confirmation wars. As Milbank wrote, “By 2013, for example, 79 of Obama’s nominees had been blocked by filibusters, compared with 68 in the entire previous history of the Republic.”

It was McConnell who spearheaded every recent attempt to derail campaign-finance reforms.

It was McConnell who cooked up an unprecedented scorched-earth scheme to undermine President Obama, deliberately refusing to consider any compromises – even if it meant rejecting his own ideas – in the hopes of trying to ensure that the Democratic president only served one term.

It was McConnell who imposed the first-ever, year-long blockade on any Supreme Court nominee.

It was McConnell who was warned about Russia’s illegal attack on the American election last year, only to scuttle efforts to address the crisis in the hopes of putting Moscow’s candidate in the Oval Office.

It was McConnell who decided to shift with the political winds in order to advance his partisan crusade. Milbank added, “[M]ost characteristic of McConnell is his tendency to shift his views to suit current exigencies (on the minimum wage, withdrawal from Iraq, earmarks, abortion, labor and civil rights) and his adroitness at gumming up the works: forcing clerks to spend hours reading a bill aloud on the floor; opposing immigration legislation he’d encouraged; asking for a vote on a debt-ceiling proposal and then trying to filibuster it; urging the Obama administration to support a bipartisan debt commission and then voting against it.”

This isn’t about issues or ideology, per se. My point isn’t that McConnell is on the right, and I’m on the left, so I’m opposed to his vision and preferred policies. Rather, we’re talking about politics on an institutional level. We can evaluate the Kentucky Republican’s views on given issues on a case-by-case basis, but what makes McConnell so destructive is how he’s pursued his priorities, not the priorities themselves.

I don’t blame McConnell for considering partisan advantage important; I blame him for prioritizing partisan advantage above literally every other consideration, including the health and sustainability of our political system. I’m not bothered by his victories; I’m bothered by what those victories have cost.

Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi is famous for having said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” In other words, on the list of what’s important, winning ranks first – and there’s nothing else on the list. McConnell approaches matters of state the same way, without any real concern for the broader effects on the political system.

His legacy, therefore, will be one of division, distrust, gridlock, and a systemic breakdown in American governance. By all appearances, that suits Mitch McConnell just fine, which is precisely the problem.

Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell secures an ignoble place in political history

Updated