Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky senior Senator and Senate Majority Leader, has been an abject failure as a “leader” almost from the beginning. Considered a master tactician who deftly negotiates the arcane rules of the Senate, he is proving himself unworthy of the title of “leader” and taking the Republican Party down with him.
This analysis is not based on his recent handling of the Obamacare repeal and replace debacle. Instead, McConnell’s problems started from before he assumed his leadership position. In 2014, before any votes were cast in a Senatorial midterm election where every political pundit and prognosticator was predicting a Republican take-over of the Senate, McConnell showed his true colors regarding his take on leadership.
During that electoral cycle, McConnell’s only goal was consolidating his power base and nothing more. In that election, his Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) went head-to-head with the Jim DeMint-created Senate Conservative Fund (SCF). DeMint’s creation was instrumental in funding Tea Party candidates to run against entrenched Republican incumbents and other more moderate candidates. In the mind of McConnell, the Senate could have been won in 2012 if it wasn’t for those pesky Tea Party-inspired insurgents. In 2014, he became distressed that the SCF and other conservative groups were running primary opponents against Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas. What was more distressing was they were running a primary opponent against his reelection bid in Kentucky.
Besides directing the SLF to defend Roberts and Cochran, McConnell went after the SCF on a personal level, deriding them in the press stating they were a “rogue political operation that has co-opted the Liberty movement for its own enrichment to the detriment of the conservative cause.” This from a man who takes millions from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. This is, in my opinion, beyond hypocrisy; it is a slanderous statement. McConnell would not know principled conservatism if it rose up and bit him on the ass.
In 2014, the Republican Party won control of the Senate. But practically every action taken by McConnell consisted of three acts: (1) consolidating his power base (which did not include Tea Party people), (2) passing legislation that was doomed to failure or overwhelmingly bipartisan, and (3) capitulation to the Democratic minority when push came to shove.
In 2015, a perfect case in point was his ham-handed handling of the PATRIOT Act that led to a Republican filibuster of a Republican-backed law, led by Rand Paul. That same year, re-authorization of the Import-Export Bank, a poster child for crony capitalism, the political world was stunned that an upstart Senator from Texas would arise on the Senate floor and basically call McConnell a liar. Screams of a lack of decorum were heard from Maine to Alaska. Ted Cruz was simply grandstanding because visions of the Presidency danced in his head, we were told. Unfortunately for McConnell, he was caught in a lie and had made a deal with the Democrats and Ted Cruz rightfully called him out on this breach of trust.
In anticipation of the 2016 election, McConnell, in a fit of candor in an interview with the Washington Post of all publications, said that the goal of the Republican control of the Senate was to make the GOP “look less scary.” What did that boil down to? It did not mean passing any major legislation or addressing any problems; it simply meant avoiding a government shutdown under any circumstances. It is what led to Republican capitulation in so many areas. Mitch McConnell is the consummate conservative when running for office and quite the opposite when in office.
Say what you will about Harry Reid or Chuck Schumer, but they at least have the ability to hold together their caucus. Under Reid or even Schumer it would be unthinkable for a freshman Senator like Tom Cotton to circulate a letter signed by other Senators addressed to Iran in the midst of negotiations. Tom Cotton’s letter was correct in my opinion, but the point is discipline within the caucus. They say the best legislation or policy is that passed on a bipartisan basis. Under McConnell, he cannot even get to that point because he has failed as leader in keeping the GOP caucus united with a single message. Regarding the near shutdown of the DHS, McConnell had to give into the Democrats lest the GOP “look scary.” This master of the Senate rules was reduced to blaming the big bad Democrats for taking advantage of guess what? The Senate rules.
And no mention of McConnell’s lack of leadership is complete without mentioning the healthcare debacle. He and Trump can go at it all year over blame for its demise, but the fact is this was played out in McConnell’s backyard on his turf with the rules in his favor. The problem begins, I believe, with the fact that McConnell never expected a Trump victory in November and was caught with his pants down when it came to repeal and replace. He likely was counting on more for-show votes and a Hillary veto. What makes this more egregious is it shows lack of planning.
A good leader should anticipate various outcomes that affect their eventual strategies. In the case of healthcare, McConnell had seven years to come up with a replacement package. He had from Election Day 2016 to the present to mobilize his caucus, but failed. Instead of bringing in the various ideas floating around- many dating to days way before Obamacare- and forcing compromise and building consensus, he locked away 13 Senators behind closed doors to develop a plan. It should be noted that many of these Senators, like McConnell, were recipients of large donations from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
The “solutions” went from bad to worse when McConnell- a “leader-” more or less had to grovel for votes for the so-called “skinny repeal” which was perhaps the only thing remotely bipartisan and something that united even the most disparate views in the GOP- the bill sucked! But in the name of party unity- because that was the only hand he had left after backing himself in a corner (much of it his own making)- he pushed it for a vote. He knew damn well he could not afford to lose any votes beyond that of Collins and Murkowski and the pre-vote press conference by Graham, McCain and Johnson should have been a wake-up call to press them into a “Yes” vote if it was so important.
Wavering Senators supposedly had the assurances and promise from Ryan and McConnell that the skinny repeal would go to conference and there real healthcare reform would be enacted. Maybe McCain, who was one of the biggest critics of Ted Cruz’ calling out speech on the Senate floor, had his brain tumor jiggle some synapses and he recalled that McConnell’s word could not be trusted. While many vilify McCain- and he does share some blame since this is his swan song “maverick” action- the bulk of the blame rightfully belongs at the feet of McConnell.
And worst of all, McConnell showed the signs of a terrible leader by leaving his flank exposed. The vote left Senators like Dean Heller and Jeff Flake vulnerable in making a difficult vote for no reason whatsoever- a bitter pill bill that absolutely no Senator Left or Right liked.
It is one thing to misjudge the strength or actions of an opponent, and quite another to misjudge the actions of those in your own ranks. Mitch McConnell’s lack of “leadership” did not start with the healthcare debacle, but it certainly was an exclamation point on his rudderless leadership. McConnell embodies the modern politician. He cares little about what actually gets accomplished and cares more about the next election.
If you can’t accomplish anything- and we know the Democrats will stand firm in their opposition and obstruction- then at least go bold. But, that is not in the DNA of the consummate ineffective Senator from Kentucky. He’s the tactician and master of the rules who has yet, as Majority Leader other than going nuclear on Supreme Court nominees, been lacking in tactics and has become the victim of the rules he supposedly commands. That, in the end, is not “leadership,” at least not as this writer sees it.