We tend to think of political eras in terms of presidents: The 1980s remind us of Ronald Reagan, not Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. The same is true of the 1990s and Bill Clinton, the post-9/11 era and George W. Bush, the years after the financial collapse and Barack Obama. Now, it is assumed, we are in the era of Donald Trump.
But are we? Trump is certainly the most visible elected leader in our national political life. But with his inescapably controversial persona serving as the starkest partisan dividing line in our polarized age, he is, perhaps more than any other modern president, also a figurehead—a president-in-name-only, elected to sit in the Oval Office and tweet into the abyss, which may or may not tweet back.
Meanwhile, the real work of legislating and governing is done by others—in particular, by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell, the chelonian senior senator from Kentucky, is almost certainly the most influential Republican in either chamber of Congress. He is the architect of his party's legislative strategy and the tactician behind its more process-oriented victories. Where McConnell goes, the rest of the GOP tends to follow.
And under Obama and now Trump, McConnell—whose steely temperament and avoidance of the limelight make him the current president's stylistic opposite—has adopted a form of politics that is partisan and procedural, focused above all on tactical and electoral victory rather than broad policy goals or ideological transformation. In many ways, it is his world we're living in rather than Trump's.
To understand McConnell's method, it's important to remember that before he was majority leader, he served for four years as the Senate GOP's whip during the Bush administration. The whip is the party leader's top lieutenant, and his job is both to count votes and to pressure them into existence. It was in this role that McConnell developed a reputation for being a canny legislative tactician with a deep knowledge of the Senate's often-arcane rules and traditions and the ways they could be used to advance the party's interests.
But the whip's role is to execute an agenda set by someone else rather than to develop a long-term legislative vision of his own. The goal isn't to change the world or make it a better place. It's to deliver the party a win.
McConnell has carried over that focus on discrete partisan victories to his tenure as leader. He counts votes and secures them, and he uses the rulebook to achieve narrow victories, but when it comes to policy—the substance of legislation—he's a cypher whose only real guidestar seems to be the maintenance of political power.
That's true even of his two most consequential victories: the confirmations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch's vacancy existed only because McConnell refused for most of a year to hold a vote on President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland. Keeping the seat open not only let Trump nominate a replacement, it created pressure on Trump-skeptical Republicans during the 2016 election by providing a strong reason for them to vote against Hillary Clinton. Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were confirmed with a simple majority after McConnell ended the minority party's ability to filibuster Supreme Court nominations.
The same pattern applies to the GOP's two biggest legislative initiatives during Trump's first year in office: Obamacare repeal and tax reform.
When health care reform advanced to the Senate, McConnell tore up the House bill and started from scratch, producing complex legislation via an insular process run out of his office. Even his fellow Republican senators were unclear about what was in the bill at any given time; sometimes they relied on lobbyists to find out. Despite the opacity of the process, McConnell declined to hold extensive hearings on the bill or to make a sustained public case for its virtues. He pushed legislators into up-or-down votes on legislation that no one really understood, releasing rushed, sometimes handwritten changes just hours before the roll call.
In the end, the bill, which failed in a dramatic late-night session, was little more than a shell, with details to be filled in at some later point. McConnell was not pursuing any particular policy goals. He was pursuing only a legislative victory.
The tax bill that followed was more successful, yet once again the process was centrally run, with little allowance made for outside input and little time for analysis or argument. It passed on McConnell's explicit assurances that it would spark enough economic growth to produce a net reduction in the federal budget deficit, which so far it has not. But McConnell made clear that he saw it as necessary to enact if Republicans wanted to do well in the 2018 midterms. It was an electoral ploy as much as a policy achievement, and it was led almost entirely by the Senate majority leader.
Or consider the criminal justice reform legislation that has been working its way through Congress this year. Although the bill commands bipartisan support in the Senate and is backed by advocacy groups on both the right and the left, McConnell worked to slow it throughout the fall, reportedly informing Trump in November that there wouldn't be time for a vote this year. He also gave a platform to Republican opponents of the legislation, such as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, in internal discussions. Trump held a press conference announcing his support for the measure, but McConnell is in the driver's seat, and he suspects enacting criminal justice reform on a bipartisan basis would hand Democrats a victory. The bill's political fortunes were significantly imperiled because of him.
McConnell's resistance on criminal justice reform—one of the most politically unifying issues in the country right now—is especially notable given his public calls for bipartisan cooperation following this year's midterm election. The success of the next Congress, he wrote in a Fox News column, would "depend on our Democratic colleagues. Will they choose to go it alone and simply make political points? Or will they choose to work together and actually make a difference?"
We know what McConnell would choose. Under Obama, he declared that his highest priority was to make him a one-term president. His primary tactic was to refuse to work across the aisle on any significant legislation, ever. The "key," McConnell explained, "was to deny the president, if possible, the opportunity to have any of these things be considered bipartisan." That was how McConnell would win.
This is not to say that bipartisanship is a good unto itself. But it is one that McConnell tends to deploy with brazen selectivity, in service of hollow partisan gain.
There is an important place in politics for victory, of course, and some of McConnell's wins, particularly when it comes to filling court seats, will probably net out for the best. But his single-minded focus on tactics and procedure, on working the machinery of politics to grind out wins, has almost certainly come at a cost: It has made our nation's politics more starkly divided and more nakedly partisan—more like a team sport in which the game is all that matters than a system of productive democratic compromise between differing ideological visions.
McConnell is neither the first nor the only elected lawmaker to engage in this sort of cynical politicking, but he is its most prominent and successful current practitioner. Our era—the McConnell era—is defined by his empty, partisan, point-scoring approach and the deleterious ripple effects it has had across our political institutions. Among other things, it gave us Donald Trump.