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Why it matters that Mitch McConnell will step down as Senate GOP leader

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will step down from his leadership post this year. The Republican's “successes” are a matter of perspective.


By any fair measure, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has lost much of the power and influence he once enjoyed. After the 2022 midterm elections, the Kentucky Republican faced the most serious intraparty challenge of his career, leaving little doubt that a significant chunk of his GOP colleagues were eager to oust him.

When McConnell had some health difficulties last summer, talk of replacing him grew considerably louder.

In the months that followed, the Senate minority leader found his members routinely ignoring his directives, all while Donald Trump went after McConnell with contempt and vitriol the former president usually reserves for Democrats. Earlier this month, some of his members, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, publicly called for the GOP leader to give up his leadership post.

That was just three weeks ago. It was against this backdrop that McConnell made some news this afternoon. NBC News reported:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will step down from the helm of the Republican Conference this year, ending his time as the longest-serving leader in Senate history. The Kentucky Republican, who has served as GOP leader since 2007, made his announcement in a Senate floor speech Wednesday.

There was some discussion in the immediate aftermath of the news about McConnell’s “legacy,” and it’s only fair to say that the outgoing Senate minority leader had a dramatic impact on the institution and the nation.

That impact has not always been a positive one.

I’m reminded of a column The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote several years ago, describing McConnell as the politician 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.

Many observers will no doubt respond to his announcement by emphasizing how “successful” McConnell has been. There’s certainly some truth to that. But whether Americans have benefited from the Republican leader’s triumphs is another matter entirely.

McConnell succeeded in helping change Senate norms to require 60-vote supermajorities on practically every piece of legislation of any significance. McConnell succeeded in creating the modern judicial confirmation wars. McConnell succeeded in derailing every recent attempt at campaign-finance reforms.

McConnell succeeded in effectively stealing a Supreme Court seat. He successfully helped let Donald Trump off the hook after Jan. 6. He successfully looked the other way when U.S. intelligence officials warned him directly that Russia was interfering in the 2016 elections in order to put Trump in power.

McConnell also successfully cooked up an unprecedented scorched-earth scheme to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency, deliberately refusing to consider any compromises — even if it meant rejecting his own ideas — as part of a failed effort to ensure that the Democratic president only served one term.

All of which is to say, McConnell’s “successes” are a matter of perspective.

As for the coming months, the minority leader’s decision will probably keep his GOP opponents off his back for a while — there’s no point in trying to oust a leader who’ll step down at the end of the year — though in the process, McConnell has opened the door to a heated intraparty competition to succeed him.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune and former Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn are expected to be the top contenders, though Trump might very well have a third alternative in mind. The election to replace McConnell will happen in November, and the next Republican leader will take the office in January. Watch this space.