(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on November 13, 2017.)
The Republican Party is in the middle of a civil war. And instead of trying to resolve it, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is making it worse.
According to a recent report, the Senate majority leader has decided to escalate his feud with Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump and current Breitbart News executive chairman.
McConnell’s allies cite the decision as evidence of his toughness.
But it illustrates instead the limits of his leadership.
While long considered a canny operator, the reality is that McConnell has been unsuccessful in leading Senate Republicans in the current environment. And the decision to treat his critics as adversaries suggests that he would rather deflect blame for his missteps than rise above a conflict that threatens to tear his party apart.
The perception of McConnell’s tenure as Republican leader is belied by its reality. Admittedly, he’s earned a reputation over the years as a skilled legislative tactician for appearing to always triumph in the face of adversity. Given his experience and skill, many Republicans believed McConnell was ideally suited to shepherd their agenda through the Senate in 2017.
Yet the reality is that 2017 is almost over and McConnell has yet to deliver on his promise. Instead, Republicans are at risk of squandering the best opportunity to enact their agenda in more than a decade.
This suggests that McConnell’s reputation as a leader par excellence was not entirely justified in the first place.
Leading successfully in the current environment is admittedly not easy. But neither is it impossible. Past Senate leaders such as Sens. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont.; Everett Dirksen, R-Ill.; and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., could do so in similar, if not even more challenging, situations. These leaders succeeded by facilitating the participation of interested senators in the legislative process. The goodwill they earned in doing so earned their colleagues trust and helped them to broker compromises between the various factions in their parties.
In contrast, McConnell’s tendency to intervene aggressively in intraparty disputes has served to perpetuate and exacerbate Republican infighting.
The secret behind McConnell’s reputation has been his ability to evade responsibility for suboptimal outcomes. He does so by blaming others when things do not turn out as expected while simultaneously taking credit for ensuring that they did not turn out even worse.
Most of the time, that meant blaming former President Barack Obama and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for the fact that Senate Republicans did not accomplish more in specific legislative debates, such as those over the debt ceiling, government funding, and Obamacare.
While leaders have always blamed their adversaries for their shortcomings, McConnell’s willingness to blame his fellow partisans sets him apart. For example, he routinely assigned blame to Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, and the candidates it supported in Republican primaries in 2010 to explain why the GOP failed to capitalize on the Tea Party movement and retake the majority that year. In doing so, McConnell also conveniently overlooked the early support DeMint gave to rising GOP stars such as Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
And after Republicans finally won a majority in the 2014 elections, McConnell regularly defended the lackluster bills he brought to the floor and passed with largely Democratic votes by pointing to what he portrayed as the obstinate refusal of conservatives such as Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to compromise.
While McConnell could make this approach work in the opposition, he has had less success doing so now that Republicans control Congress and the presidency. Democrats are no longer a credible obstacle and conservatives have been constructive partners in trying to pass Republican priorities, even though in many cases the legislation has fallen short of their ideal solution.
Given this, McConnell has been unable to identify someone on whom he can pin blame for the Senate’s failures.
Enter Bannon. His plan to recruit primary challengers to all but one of the Republican incumbents appearing on the ballot in 2018 has given McConnell a convenient foil. Instead of changing how he does his job to better confront the challenges in the current environment, McConnell has chosen the easier path of evading responsibility for the dismal status quo. He now has the option to focus his energies on making sure that it doesn’t get worse. And voila! The act of perpetuating an unacceptable situation is magically transformed into a victory (assuming, of course, that McConnell prevails over Bannon in the end).
There are two problems with this. First, it is not McConnell’s job as majority leader to win the Republican civil war. Rather, his job is to manage the Senate and help Republican senators achieve their goals in the institution. That McConnell does not get this illustrates one reason he has not been able to deliver a single major legislative victory over the last 11 months.
Second, McConnell could not win the war even if he wanted to. In building up Bannon as public enemy No. 1, McConnell further fractures his own coalition and signals to his allies that they need not take the underlying forces fueling anti-incumbent sentiment seriously. The result has been to create a culture of avoidance and denial among Senate Republicans that ensures that the conflict will persist into the future.
As evidence of this, consider the results of the 2012 and 2014 primary elections. McConnell and his allies rightly point to their successes in beating back conservative insurgents in several primaries in those years. However, instead of uniting Republicans, their victories drove them further apart.
Fortunately, the civil war need not persist until one side or the other is defeated outright. McConnell can help resolve it, in the Senate at least, simply by acknowledging the legitimacy of his opponents’ frustrations and changing how he does his job accordingly. By proactively addressing the concerns of those frustrated by the status quo, McConnell can unite the GOP, protect his incumbents, and get the stalled Republican agenda back on track. And in doing so, McConnell will increase the likelihood that he will remain majority leader in 2019.
Until then, any victories for which McConnell takes credit, whether real or imagined, will be pyrrhic.