Friday, March 01, 2024

Anticipating a New Senate Republican Leadership

David Super

     For anyone who follows Congress, the departure of the longest-serving Senate party leader is a momentous occasion.  It merits comment both on the significance of his leadership and what is likely to come after it. 

     Senator McConnell’s career has been marked by taking advantage of virtually every opportunity within his reach.  As an obscure state judge, he won the Republican nomination to run against seemingly popular Senator Walter Huddleston because nobody else wanted it.  McConnell noticed, however, that Huddleston had been neglecting constituent services and had stopped traveling outside of the urban parts of the state.  McConnell’s win was a shocking upset in a state that was, at the time, solidly Democratic (and whose Republican Party had been quite moderate).  Since then, Senator McConnell has shown remarkable skills in spotting and exploiting political opportunities. 

     Representing an impoverished state on the Senate Agriculture Committee, engaging with the Food Stamp Program would have been a logical move:  many extremely conservative senators from such states have made an exception for food stamps (now SNAP).  But he did not care for the Food Stamp Program and did not think supporting it would help the hard-line conservative brand he was trying to build.  He therefore found an alternative in making a name for himself as a supporter of school meal programs.  This avoided the ire directed at senators who ignore their constituents’ hunger while not forcing him to tangle with other conservatives. 

     He outmaneuvered self-congratulatory Democrats on numerous occasions.  He deftly used threats to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees to push through a collection of extreme George W. Bush picks without actually having to terminate the filibuster.  That left him free to tie up numerous Barack Obama nominees, which would not have been possible had Democrats called his bluff a few years earlier. 

     And he outmaneuvered his own less-diligent Republican colleagues.  Few have commented on how he centralized the vetting of Republican nominees in his office.  When Democratic presidents selected nominees for Republican seats on multi-headed agencies, they soon learned that negotiating names with anyone but Senator McConnell all but ensured that the nominee – and any Democratic choices for the same panel – would never come up for a vote.  No longer could Democrats find a moderate Republican donor from the home state of the top Republican on the relevant committee.  Instead, the nominees would be intensely partisan and reliably conservative, highly resistant to cooptation by the career staff or other board members of the agency. 

     Senator McConnell also had the judgment that so many of his colleagues lacked about when a seeming short-term opportunity was worth seizing and when it would be a long-term liability.  He recognized that federal government shutdowns depend heavily on careful messaging.  Having seen his party repeatedly pummeled in shutdowns under Bill Clinton due to undisciplined messaging by Speaker Newt Gingrich and other House Republicans, he became a determined foe of shutdowns. 

     He also concluded that blocking broad relief during the coronavirus pandemic would unsustainable for Republicans in an election year and sought to negotiate the best deal he could.  Trading the Republicans’ dream corporate welfare package for the Democrats’ dream temporary unemployment compensation expansion surely won him enormous credit with GOP donors; had he tried to hold out, his party would have suffered serious damage and, in the end, he would have had to have negotiate a package from weakness. 

     More generally, he stayed sufficiently focused on the big picture to reject short-term expedients with big long-term costs.  He would freely, even enthusiastically, tell Democratic senators “no”, but he would not tell them lies.  (He also was zealous in his punishment of those that lied or broke promises to him.) 

     On the other hand, he correctly determined that neither he nor his party would endure serious long-term damage for blockading Merrick Garland’s nomination to the seat vacated by Justice Scalia’s death.  He also concluded that the only people paying enough attention to notice Republicans’ hypocrisy in filling Justice Ginsburg’s seat on the eve of an election were self-identified moderates whose feigned commitment to process values paled next to their determination to “both sides” every issue.  He similarly perceived that Republicans cared much more about judicial nominations than Democrats so that he could force through record numbers of Trump nominees to lower courts without provoking Democrats to bring the Senate to a grinding halt – and then make exactly that kind of threat to slow confirmation of Biden nominees. 

     For most of his political career, his motto might have been “nothing personal”:  he maneuvered as necessary to maximize the power of the Senate Republican Conference without becoming personally invested in this or that particular issue.  In the past few years, however, his detachment began to crack.  He took the January 6 assault on the Capitol very personally.  Senator McConnell is not nearly as athletic as some of his Republican colleagues and would have been in grave peril had the mob gotten close to him.  His subsequent speech criticizing former President Trump and failure to repair that relationship greatly weakened him within his caucus.  And after leading a Senate Republican delegation to Kyiv, he became smitten by the Ukrainian people fighting Putin’s efforts to re-establish the Soviet empire.  As Russian disinformation took hold in the Republican base, this commitment weakened him further.  Like the Lady of Shallot, he grew half tired of the shadows that are today’s Republican Party, lost his magic, and paid the political price.   

     Senator McConnell never allowed anyone to get to his right on substance, although he maintained more tactical flexibility in negotiating deals than many other congressional Republicans.  Assertions that the next Senate Republican Leader will be more conservative are therefore absurd.  The next Senate Republican Leader likely will be much weaker than Senator McConnell, far less able to make commitments on behalf of their party and hence far less able to secure concessions from Democrats.  The MAGA element of the Conference seldom meets a deal it likes or a fight it dislikes, no matter how bad the long-term consequences might be. 

     Thus, the new leader will fight more and, lacking Senator McConnell’s political and procedural skills, lose more.  When they commit their conference to positions out of step with the electorate, their subsequent collapses will give Democrats more room to dictate terms on key legislation. 

     The new leader also will have more difficulty getting rid of disastrous nominees for winnable seats and will be less adept at protecting Republicans in swing states from political embarrassment.  This could cost Republicans control of the Senate some years.   

     On substance, therefore, Democrats will likely gain from Senator McConnell’s departure from the leadership.  The increasing contentious, combative tone that will result, on the other hand, will alienate more voters from politics.  Reduced voter turn-out likely helps Republicans, particularly MAGA Republicans.  And the further degradation of our public life will contribute to the normalization of ruthless, anti-republican behavior like that of former President Trump.  That is not good for our future at all. 



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