(Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in Real Clear Policy on June 14, 2018.)
Mitch McConnell is a tough guy to figure out. Everyone agrees he’s one of the most consequential figures in American politics. Yet it’s not entirely clear why.
The six-term Republican senator from Kentucky and current majority leader has cultivated a reputation over the years as a master tactician and skilled legislative leader. Still, few can list his legislative accomplishments. Whether he’s squaring off against Democrats or his own party members, the outcome always appears to be the same: McConnell wins. Even so, it isn’t clear what winning means for Republicans or the Senate.
Perhaps because of this ambiguity, McConnell set a record this week as the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history. In doing so, he moved one step closer to eclipsing Mike Mansfield (D-MT) as the longest-serving leader of either party in the Senate.
Breaking Mansfield’s record would be the perfect capstone to McConnell’s career. He often cites the Senate legend as an example of the kind of leader he aspires to be. Unlike the ever-enigmatic McConnell, however, people know why Mansfield is important. From 1961 to 1977, Mansfield deftly guided the Senate through a thicket of domestic unrest, political assassinations, wars, congressional investigations, and a presidential impeachment controversy. And through all the controversy, the Senate managed to keep legislating — in large part due to Mansfield’s leadership.
While there are many similarities between today’s Senate and that of Mansfield’s time, the institution has, under McConnell’s leadership, proven largely incapable of legislating in the face of even the slightest controversy. This contrast is a testament to the impact a truly skilled leader can have. For that reason, comparing McConnell’s tenure with Mansfield’s can help us form an accurate assessment of McConnell’s record-breaking reign as Republican leader.
Having done so, it turns out McConnell isn’t too hard to figure out after all.
McConnell may aspire to emulate Mansfield, but, in truth, the two men’s views of the Senate differ dramatically. Whereas Mansfield saw a deliberative body in which all senators were equal, McConnell sees a factory, the purpose of which is to produce legislation. And whereas Mansfield understood the majority leader’s job as facilitating senators’ participation in the legislative process, McConnell understands it in terms of a foreman whose job it is to make the production process run smoothly.
In short, McConnell sees the Senate as a means to an end rather than as a valuable institution in its own right.
Remarkably, McConnell has flourished despite the gridlock that nearly always results from his peculiar lawmaking approach. He’s done so by demonstrating an uncanny ability to avoid responsibility by blaming others for the Senate’s shortcomings while simultaneously taking credit for the fact that things did not turn out worse. For example, consider how he alternates effortlessly between blaming the Senate’s lackluster record on the Democrats’ “historic obstruction” and praising that record as the best he’s seen in his long career.
When you consider both the superficial nature of McConnell’s legislative accomplishments and the dramatic decline in senators’ autonomy during his tenure, his reputation as a first-rate leader becomes all the more surprising. The fact that McConnell hasn’t yet faced a single significant challenge to his leadership suggests that his real accomplishment has been affecting a wholesale change in how his fellow Republicans understand the Senate’s place in the political process.
Once McConnell’s Senate-as-a-factory view is acknowledged, it becomes clear why he pays so much attention to electoral politics. For McConnell, winning elections is necessary to control the Senate’s means of production: its committee chairs, leadership positions, and votes. Without these, achieving one’s ends in politics is impossible. Winning elections to maintain (or regain) a majority is therefore the ultimate end of his efforts. He is unwilling to tolerate freewheeling debates à la Mansfield precisely because these can’t be controlled. And while the Senate has proved incapable of accomplishing very much with McConnell’s approach, as compared to Mansfield’s, the majority leader can at least keep divisions within his party under wraps and thus present the electorate with a unified — and inoffensive — message during elections.
That’s why McConnell ruled out passing a budget or tackling entitlement reform this year. It’s an election year, and both initiatives divide Republicans. However familiar, this reasoning would be considered strange under more normal circumstances. After all, the Republicans control both the Congress and the presidency for the first time in 11 years. If not now, when?
But for McConnell, what happens in elections is more important than what transpires between them. Of course, to a certain extent, his view makes sense. Failing to hold the Senate in November will affect what the Republicans are able to do in 2019. But such logic quickly becomes circular and self-defeating; there is always another election looming just around the corner.
In 2019, Republicans will already be looking ahead to 2020 with trepidation. Having embraced McConnell’s logic, Senate Republicans will be left waiting for their big break — the moment when they will finally get to deliver on all the commitments they’ve made over the years. Yet, like Vladimir and Estragon waiting indefinitely for Godot, they, too, have not yet realized their time simply is not coming.