I recently asked an acquaintance who has a long association with senator Mitch McConnell why I should admire the Republican minority leader.
The answer: McConnell is remarkably unconcerned about what others think of him. It is a common observation. Late-night television comedians describe McConnell as resembling a slow-talking, hard-shelled turtle that moves relentlessly ahead, public criticism be damned.
Well, there is something refreshing about a politician who seems guided by an internal compass – and avidly collects cartoons of himself depicted as a laconic reptile. But even those who are thrilled by McConnell’s conservative agenda, including McConnell himself, ought to worry that his approach to politics is exactly what the United States doesn’t need right now.
The assault on the Capitol on 6 January 2021 is not an anomalous right-wing aberration. A recent poll found that one in three Americans believe that “violence against the government can at times be justified”. Cynicism about government institutions is so deep that election results are called into question months before citizens cast their votes.
The roots of this disenchantment lie to a large extent in persistent economic inequities, big money involvement in election campaigns, a primary system that favours the politically deranged, hyper-partisan gerrymandering and fringe organisations that use social media to suggest that “it” – whatever “it” might be – is a conspiracy.
None of these problems are easily fixed. But there is no way out if political leaders don’t model lofty values even as they pursue their political agendas.
It is fair to say that no legislator in Congress today has been more masterful at getting his way legislatively than senator McConnell, and no legislator exceeds him in projecting cynicism as the primary principle of politics.
Consider McConnell’s oft-noted reaction to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. McConnell, then minority leader, said that his goal was to ensure the new president had no successes and would not be reelected.
In the coming months, he showed his disdain for an electoral process that produced a victor he did not favour. Traditional senate leaders have viewed debate as a way to shape better legislation. McConnell believed: “The key to having a debate, frankly and candidly, was to deny the president, if possible, the opportunity to have any of these things [he proposed] considered bipartisan.”
McConnell treats principle the way victims of hay fever treat tissue paper. As majority leader, he refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was a presidential election year. This had never been done before, and McConnell quickly tossed aside the flimsy rationale when president Trump had the chance to fill a seat when an election was even closer. McConnell’s explanation for ditching the now inconvenient principle was: “We were the same party as the president.”
The logical progression in this line of thinking is that a Republican-controlled Senate should not vote on any nomination by a Democrat president, even if the next presidential election is years away. And, lo, McConnell recently has said as much. If the Senate goes Republican in November, he is “unlikely” to allow a vote on a Biden nomination to the high court.
McConnell began his political life inveighing against the corruption of money in politics, but has since thwarted campaign finance reform, which favours Republicans in general. He frankly admits that big money made his first election to the Senate possible.
McConnell’s cynicism came to him early on. He proudly claims that he won his very first election, as president of his high school class, despite not having “even one friend”. He prevailed by using saccharine flattery to win the endorsements of school jocks and cheerleaders.
Flashing forward, McConnell used president Trump as a useful idiot to get what he wanted, including a spot for his wife in Trump’s cabinet. Eager not to alienate a mercurial president whose contempt for democratic institutions was unsurpassed, he resisted bipartisan calls to beef up election security and refused to allow witnesses to testify at Trump’s impeachment trial.
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McConnell rejoices in being portrayed as the villain. It helps that he looks the part. His attempted smiles are the pasted-on grins of a beauty queen contestant suffering from a nasty attack of haemorrhoids. His genuine mirth displays itself as a smirk, typically appearing when he has somehow bested a political opponent.
Smirks are not the mark of democratic leadership. It is unfair to measure politicians by Winston Churchill’s exceptional ability to lead with oratory. But the lesson stands. Democracy depends on the way leaders talk. We will never have a “finest hour” speech from Mitch McConnell.
In his autobiography, to which Trump wrote the foreword, McConnell said he entered politics with aspirations of being ranked with 19th century Kentucky senator Henry Clay. McConnell, the man of few words, is feeding his recollections into an archive that will be available to future generations.
But he would do his legacy and the country a nobler service by worrying about what people think of his sense of democratic values right now. For a start, he could emulate Clay, the Great Compromiser, who died before the Civil War. Clay was the one legislator, his colleagues believed, who could have headed off that wrenching conflict.
John Maxwell Hamilton is a journalism professor at Louisiana State University