U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell set to step down from post

Whoever replaces McConnell may reflect the Trump Party more doggedly, but acquiring the unique skills of the seven-term senator will be back-breaking. Pictured: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Photo Credit: Getty Images. 


In the myriad of words written about Mitch McConnell’s tenure as Republican leader, the term effective will most usefully describe his period in office. Those in MAGA world will never grant him the credit he deserves for preserving an opening for former president Donald Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Those on the left will never forgive him for blocking Merrick Garland’s appointment and making Gorsuch’s appointment possible. 

When McConnell’s term as Leader concludes next January, he will have a record second to none in the annals of Senate history. While scoring a mid-range 43 from the Heritage Foundation in their rankings of conservative legislators, McConnell will have ensured a conservative judiciary for years to come. He knew his spot in history, and his job, required much more than winning partisan victories. 

When the Kentucky senator took over leadership in the Senate, he recognized a few facts no longer appreciated in politics: first, passing legislation requires working with other people from different states, jurisdictions, points of view, and priorities; second, getting most of what you want suffices in politics because you can always live to fight another day; and third, great leaders prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. 

Let’s start with the first rule of the McConnell precepts. Political legislation hardly ever passes without compromise. Unless a party holds Congress and the White House, they need up to 67 votes in the Senate (two-thirds of 100) to uphold legislation or overturn a presidential veto. Getting that kind of majority on controversial issues ranks up there with finding a cure for cancer. If one party is fortunate enough to hold both Congress and the presidency, they can pass laws with bare majorities. Unfortunately, geography can play havoc with the best-laid plans. 

A senator from one state may belong to the Republican Party but possess different values about specific issues. A Maine caucus member (like Senator Susan Collins) will reflect her moderate constituents, while a member from a solid red state (like South Carolina Senator Tim Scott) will more confidently belong to the MAGA team. Herding those disparate representatives behind a bill can be tricky and require some horse-trading. McConnell learned long ago that he would not always get everything he wanted, but a leader could achieve a lot if he gave up some territory to gain more in the long run. 

McConnell’s second precept speaks to his durability and Machiavellian practices. While the Trump brigade finds McConnell’s efforts a betrayal of principle, what he did spoke to the need to build. If he could craft legislation that brought moderate Democrats on board, the chances of overturning it when power shifted to the other side diminished. Whether the bill sought tax relief, increased funding, or foreign aid, McConnell’s thinking was long-term. 

To the MAGA crowd, he was too corporate, too willing to make deals, too accommodating to the other side. Trump nor his disciples understood his job and will soon find out how well he did it. Months from now, if the former president returns to office, he will come to a crossroads legislatively and wish McConnell were heading up the Republican delegation. 

The final precept reflects the man. McConnell always knew the count. Like an umpire calling balls and strikes, the Kentuckian kept good records. He would only bring forth legislation he could pass. He could herd his members, and he knew the rules better than anyone in the history of the Senate. The best examples of this sit in the Supreme Court. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett have secured a conservative super majority because McConnell outworked and outfoxed Democrats Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer when those openings occurred.

Trump taking credit for appointing those justices without acknowledging McConnell’s vulpine grin speaks to MAGA’s hypocrisy. When McConnell blocked Obama’s choice or gave agency to Trump’s selection, he ensured a conservative majority on the court. Celebrating Trump and excoriating McConnell in light of the court appointments demonstrates MAGA’s stubborn posturing. Trump’s record looks hollow without the judicial confirmations. They would not have happened without Mitch McConnell’s expert knowledge of the Senate rules and his ability to outduel his opponents institutionally.   

In conclusion, Trump will overshadow McConnell’s legacy within the Republican Party. But the senator’s ability to play three-dimensional chess, deliver serious victories for the GOP, wield power surgically, and identify the proper time to leave will serve him well when historians write about the early twenty-first century. McConnell blocked many Obama Administration initiatives and appointments. He safeguarded openings for conservative jurists who now make rulings in Circuit Courts that deliver serious victories to the right. 

In 1984, the young senator did not present as a generational talent. He was not charismatic. He worked hard. He learned the rules of the Senate inside and out. He won substantial victories for the conservative side by governing with a “Big Tent” philosophy rather than trying to govern with everyone reading from the same hymn book. As he said when announcing his departure: “One of life’s most underappreciated talents is to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter, so I stand before you today, Mr. President and my colleagues, to say this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate.” His loyalty to the institution of the Senate and his willingness to work with colleagues turned the Trump faction against him. He read the tea leaves and knew his time had come. 

Who will replace him? 

Quite a few Republican senators have already voiced interest. Long-time Senators John Cornyn of Texas, John Thune of South Dakota, and John Barrasso of Wyoming appear to be the front-runners. One youthful name, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, has also been encouraged to throw his hat in the ring. Whoever replaces McConnell may reflect the Trump Party more doggedly, but acquiring the unique skills of the seven-term senator will be back-breaking. 

As Charles Cooke noted on National Review’s podcast, The Editors, the replacement will be a downgrade and will face the same problems with less talent. There may be leaders in the Senate capable of mastering the institution like the former County Judge.  But the divided sanctums of Congress today lack the demand for a McConnell-like commander. His kind are few and rare. The Senate has not often seen his like. The populist right celebrates his departure. They may one day realize how much they owe him.

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