Alan Zendell, January 19, 2021
When Barack Obama was inaugurated as President in 2009, Mitch McConnell, who was Senate Minority Leader at the time, said, “My job is to assure that Obama is a one-term president.” He did not achieve that goal, but his constant obstruction made everything more difficult for Obama. Today, the most significant vestige of McConnell’s efforts is the struggling Affordable Care Act. McConnell was able to scuttle the public option, an essential aspect of the original bill which was intended to set a competitive price bar that would keep premiums affordable.
When Joe Biden is inaugurated as our forty-sixth president tomorrow, McConnell will begin a new tenure as Minority Leader. He addressed the Senate today, and his remarks were in stark contrast to twelve years ago. The previously obstructionist McConnell today spoke about seeking bipartisan agreement wherever possible and said even when they disagreed, Republicans and Democrats should treat each other with respect.
Perhaps signaling good faith, he for the first time unambiguously blamed Donald Trump for the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, agreeing with Democrats that Trump and his supporters had spent their time since the election spreading lies and inciting violence. Does that mean he intends to vote to convict Trump when the Senate holds its trial? He seemed to imply that, but of course, McConnell is skilled at choosing his words. The phrase “savvy politician” might have been coined for him. We’ll know in a few days.
One of the most significant things the Trump administration accomplished was hijacking control of the Republican Party. At first, that seemed to only exacerbate the hyper partisanship that has had Congress gridlocked for nearly thirty years. When Trump took control of the party, it was a frontal attack against McConnel’s power, and McConnell’s career has been far more about personal power than ideology. They were political allies only when their objectives overlapped. McConnell, with House Speaker Paul Ryan, had been trying to pass the 2017 Tax Law for twenty years, and he was legislatively in sync with Trump in trying to kill Obamacare and in packing federal courts with conservative judges.
Make no mistake – there’s no love lost between McConnell and Trump. As allies, they were as uneasy as Churchill and Stalin when they united to fight the Nazis in World War II. McConnell kept mum when Trump railed against immigrants and refused to condemn White Supremacists in Charlottesville. He was likewise silent when refugee children were separated from their parents at the Mexican border and Trump scuttled efforts to address the status of DACA recipients, not exactly the moral high ground, but at least he wasn’t marching in lock step with the worst of Trump’s actions.
McConnell is far from my favorite politician, but as an institutionalist, he silently worked to protect the Constitution from Trump. That’s why McConnell began his remarks in the Senate today by condemning Trump’s role in attacking the Congress. He didn’t have the political courage to stand up to Trump when he should have – the pandemic is a prime example. He had a moral responsibility to attempt to save American lives rather than allow the Trump Republicans to lie to the country about the virus. He has blood on his hands for that failure, not as much as Trump does, but he’s far from innocent. But this is politics. Morality is not an absolute for politicians; rather it is something to be weaponized against rivals, or held up as an ideal when it’s convenient.
As McConnell attempts to rebuild the Republican Party along Constitutional lines, he may find himself more aligned with President Biden than some in his own caucus. Perhaps, at 75, he knows this might be his last term in the Senate, and he is thinking more about his legacy than tomorrow’s legislative battles. There is no doubt that while he surely despises Donald Trump, he has much in common with Joe Biden. McConnell can do a lot for his legacy by helping Biden heal the country in the aftermath of Trump. Despite their political differences, he shares a common heritage with Biden based on their years in the Senate. They disagreed on policies, but they both believed in the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution.
Perhaps it’s ironic that in helping Biden succeed as a strong president, he can also strengthen the Congress. Together they can reduce the gridlock, defeat the pandemic, and restore the stability of the economy, and Biden will be generous in sharing credit for their success. It’s likely that the Trumpers in the Republican caucus will be a thorn in both their sides. There have been stranger bedfellows.