How Mitch McConnell Made the Senate Even Worse
I met Ira Shapiro in 1976, when I joined a Senate committee as a staff representative for Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson; Ira was working for Nelson at the time and we became friends. (We still are.) Ira worked in the Senate for decades, crafting the body’s code of ethics and serving as chief of staff to West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller; he moved on to distinguished service as General Counsel to the U.S. Trade Representative and the practice of law, but he never lost his love for the Senate and its people. His first book, The Last Great Senate, reflected how the body operated in its heyday, when we both worked there, with standards dedicated to solving national problems even though its structure and rules made this difficult and sometimes impossible (see, for example, civil rights). Many great statesmen – and sometimes a stateswoman – have raised the rhetoric and, if necessary, moved beyond partisanship and pettiness.
By Shapiro’s second book, his view of the Senate had changed; the title, Broken, clarified. It wasn’t that the Senate was devoid of quality individuals who might have been considered giants in another era – it was the overall political dynamics, including political polarization and the decline of the center, the rise of tribal media and social media, and the willingness, especially of Republicans, from their first majority in decades under President Reagan to Donald Trump’s first year in the White House, to shred the norms that had characterized the Senate of the 1960s and 1970s, emphasizing the nation’s core problems that were becoming increasingly difficult to solve. Shapiro also shed light on the role of Mitch McConnell.
Yes Broken had at least one modestly optimistic side – the wish and belief that somehow the Senate could regain some semblance of itself – his third book, The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans Abandoned America, has none of that, and the spotlight on McConnell gets brighter, sharper, and darker. Shapiro defines his thesis thus: “The story of the rotten Senate is above all the story of Mitch McConnell. Towards the end, he describes McConnell with some admiration for his considerable skills, but with a damning summary:
McConnell was not a “political hack”; he was a superb political strategist and tactician who had never lost an election. He successfully rode the madness that had gripped the Republican Party since Newt Gingrich’s rise thirty years earlier to become the most powerful Senate leader in history. More than anyone else, he had diminished Obama’s presidency and helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. With Trump in the White House, McConnell orchestrated the sweeping transformation of the Supreme Court and endowed lower federal courts with right-wing judges; his inheritance was secure. Very few people, including presidents, have ever impacted our country more. What McConnell lacked was a moral compass that would lift him above political calculation.
McConnell’s early years in the Senate did not portend his amoral and ruthless behavior. His role model and mentor, John Sherman Cooper, was a moderate and highly ethical Republican, who would no doubt be appalled by the actions of his protege. The transformation of his Senate career is best described in Alec MacGillis’ superb book The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. But Shapiro takes that portrait and applies it to the McConnell of the past five-plus years. If there is no new report here, the cumulative impact of the analysis is overwhelming. In The treason, Shapiro sets out to chronicle key events from the presidencies of Barack Obama and Trump, up to the start of Joe Biden’s term. Much of the book details these key events, beginning with the financial collapse that defined the end of George W. Bush’s term and the beginning of Obama’s presidency. House Republicans first rejected the urgent, bipartisan call for an emergency bailout just before the 2008 election and then gave in, a plan supported by McConnell. But when Obama became president, McConnell swung, with the support of most of his GOP colleagues, into stubborn opposition, even in the face of a grave threat to the US and global economies. As Shapiro puts it, McConnell was for the first time “the opposition leader. He immediately began to transform a Senate struggling unsuccessfully to rise above the polarization of American politics into a bitterly partisan and crippled Senate where no effort would be made to overcome divisions.
Shapiro guides the reader through the highlights – or low points – of the Trump presidency through the lens of the Senate, including massive tax cuts and the attempted repeal of Obamacare, the rush to pass the judges and judges and, of course, impeachment. Along the way, a man without charisma and a face very reminiscent of a turtle was almost like Svengali to keep his limbs in line. The striking element of the tax cuts and the attempted repeal of the Health Act was the extent to which McConnell rejected “regular order” to accomplish his ends. Instead of pushing the bills through Senate committees, with hearings, bumps and amendments, he summoned a rump group of Republican senators behind closed doors to draft the bills, excluding key members of his own party in addition to excluding the Democrats. But despite sidelining most of them, McConnell lost none of his people on tax cuts, despite losing John McCain’s key vote on repeal Obamacare. .
While much of the ground Shapiro travels in the book is familiar, he manages to pull it together in a way that resonates. So much has happened over the past few years that it’s easy to forget about each element and how they are connected. And it’s clear that the Senate has played a central role – using and abusing the rules to thwart Obama, including his candidates for leadership positions and especially judges; to obstruct all initiatives, large and small; then protect and pamper Trump and his corrupt candidates from any material consequences.
While McConnell’s promise to make Obama a one-term president fell through, the process of disruption and division worked well enough to give Republicans a majority in the Senate by midterm in 2014. This victory meant that McConnell could shatter Senate standards even further when Antonin Scalia dies. nearly a year before the end of Obama’s term. Not even hearing from Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland was a shocking sign of how the Senate had changed, giving McConnell the chance to fill the job when Trump won in 2016. Senate Republicans were worried about the flagrant violation of standards, they remained silent, then voted in unison when the long-delayed vacancy was filled by Neil Gorsuch.
Then came the first impeachment, based on the shocking and treacherous behavior of a president who blackmailed the Ukrainian president, who desperately needed help in the face of Russian aggression, to smear Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The evidence of perfidy was clear and flaunted in the House impeachment hearings, but Senate Republicans made sure the consequences would fall neither on Trump nor on themselves. The acquittal was predestined, but the reaction of so-called moderate Republicans in the aftermath was embarrassing. Susan Collins of Maine said, “I believe the president has learned some lessons from this case,” while Mississippi Senator Lamar Alexander said, “Enduring an impeachment is something no one would want…I think that you’ll think twice before doing it again.
McConnell’s Senate was not just a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” body when it came to Trump; it was also a body where the truth no longer meant anything and where hypocrisy was the norm. During the 2016 campaign, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham promised that if an opening happened on the Supreme Court in Trump’s final year in office, Republicans would wait until after the next election. In 2018, Graham told Atlantic Festival attendees, “If an overture happens in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process is launched, we will wait for the next election. And I have a good chance of being the president of the judiciary. Of course, the overture came, with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Graham, along with many other Republicans who had made the same promise, blocked the confirmation of radical right-wing Amy Coney Barrett just a week before the 2020 elections. All Republicans except Collins voted to confirm her, one of the most shocking violations of standards in Senate history. We are only just beginning to see the disastrous consequences of this in sweeping Supreme Court decisions that disrupt the fabric of American life.
Shapiro takes us through the Trump debacle and the pandemic — with no pushback or scrutiny from Senate Republicans as Trump downplayed the virus and took none of the actions that could have limited it or prevented mass deaths and an inability – and then, of course, the road that led to the January 6 insurrection, Trump’s second impeachment and his second acquittal. During the Senate impeachment trial, McConnell launched a virulent attack on the president, but, predictably, voted for his acquittal. That didn’t stop Trump from calling McConnell “a stark, brooding, unsmiling political hack.” Trump showed no appreciation for the reality that his presidency, with all its outrages, scandals, traitorous behavior and rampant corruption, had been saved time and time again by McConnell.
Of course, broader trends in society and the political system are largely responsible for the current cancer in American politics, a cancer that has metastasized from Washington in the United States to the public at large. The Republican Party was on the verge of becoming a radical cult before the arrival of Donald Trump and before Mitch McConnell became his party’s leader in the Senate. But individuals can play a role in shaping the environment and determining the course of events. And McConnell counted – in a way that guarantees he’ll be on the villain list when the history of this sad time is written. Evidence to support this judgment will include Ira Shapiro The treason.