Free Minds & Free Markets

The McConnell Era Has Been Terrible for American Politics

The Senate majority leader delivers hollow partisan victories and little else.

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.

Photo Credit: U.S. government

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  • Placeholder Name||

    "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"

    No. It is the other way around. Politics became more nakedly partisan, and Mitch has adapted to the circumstances. Dems were using agencies to pass legislation by bureaucratic fiat. Merrick would have rubber stamped that process. Mitch did what was necessary, within the limits of his constitutional power to prevent that from happening.

    Your article is ridiculous.

  • Jerryskids||

    Fuck off - this is the most insightful article I've read all day. Mitch is a turtle, slow and steady and incrementally moving things down the road. He just has no idea where he's going or why he wants to get there. Well, we've been doing that shit for half a century and it's not working. Say what you want about Trump, he's got some balls and isn't afraid to say some outrageous shit and that's how he got elected. People are sick and tired of the same old do-nothing crap that gets us nowhere, they're pitching a fit because they want to see some action.

    Just as I said on the other thread, the problem is that getting elected to office and doing something with the office are two different things and the safest way to get re-elected is to talk big, act small, don't rock the boat, go along to get along, don't do anything that draws attention to yourself or forces you to take controversial stands. In other words, wait until you see which way people are going before you jump out in front of them and claim to be their leader.

  • JesseAz||

    You should read more articles.

    Mitch tried doing things in regular order. All that happened was hundreds of unrelated add ins getting attached by Democrats to force political votes. The article completely missed the initial attempts to go back to regular order.

    Even then mitch has had more regular order than Reid did

  • Elston G||

    Complete fucking nonsense.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    "He just has no idea where he's going or why he wants to get there."

    No, you can understand most of what he's doing, so long as you realize he doesn't have strong policy preferences, just political preferences. He's, as the article suggests, working to preserve his power, and that's about it.

    To that end he's killed a lot of legislation the GOP ran on accomplishing, because some of those Senators were lying about supporting it. And if votes were held, they'd have been exposed and possibly defeated in the next election.

    Sure, doing this hurt the House, but it wasn't the GOP House's power he was trying to preserve, just his own.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Jerry, you're putting me I the detestable position of defending McConnell. Don't do that.

    For all Mitch's many faults, battling Obama was not one of them. If anything, he should have fought him harder.

  • Fancylad||

    this is the most insightful article I've read all day
    Of course it is. That's because your a brain-washed, callow little troll whose soul subsists on blatant and obvious demagoguery and mud-slinging. Dishonest, unhinged never-trumpers like Suderman regularly provides all the empty calories you could possibly hope for.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    Pete MacAdoodle Suderweigel is an Obama Momma.

    He's mad because his fellow democrats have been mostly getting beaten like a drum around America.

  • $park¥ The Misanthrope||

    Pete MacAdoodle Suderweigel is an Obama Momma

    You are clearly a very serious and important person that others should listen to.

  • SIV||

    Mike M's analysis here is largely correct.

  • JesseAz||

    No it isnt. It ignores the first session of Mitch post Reid and how he attempted regular order. Democrats made a mockery of it.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Very true. He did actually try to conduct regular business.

  • Elston G||

    Bullshit. Prove it you fucking liar.

  • Elston G||

    Why did Dems have to resort to bureaucratic Fiat?
    Because of the shit McConnell was pulling as described accurately in this article.
    Are you really this ignorant?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    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.

    This method also prevented a bunch of Riders from being added to Bills. There still were Riders but not the flood of attachments that normally accompany Legislation.

    McConnell is a RINO anyway but he has a few shining lights including denying Garland and confirming Gorsuch.

  • Elston G||

    Intellectually dishonest nonsense. You all by yourself are giving Libertarians a bad name

  • A Lady of Reason||

    Trump is still holding his own... And every great man needs help and advisors to stay great...

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Trump is holding his own . . . pecker (literally and figuratively, thanks to Melania) while his administration drifts and falters.

  • Ryan (formally HFTO)||

    Tough for anyone to get ahold of it while you big government loving progressives have your mind wrapped around it 24/7

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Where "big government" = tariffs, walls, a drug war, bigoted immigration policies, farm subsidies, statist womb management, increased military spending, government micromanagement of ladyparts clinics, militarized policing, and the rest of the Republican-conservative-faux libertarian wish list?

    Carry on, clingers. Not for much longer, though.

  • Jay Dubya||

    Nothing says libertarian quite like arbitrary management of international markets in labor & commodities. I remember the firat time I read Trumps platform - History class in college when we covered the Knights of Labor.

  • Elston G||

    It's about time some one called out the ignorance of right wing meme talking point shit like that.
    I've been reading this blog for a couple years before I decided I had to say something sign in.
    So-called conservatives who post here are almost all intellectually dishonest, White grievance signaling, big government nanny statist toadies for the donor class.
    And a large segment of them are white nationalist bigoted racists.
    Pretty fucking sad.
    So good on you, for that particular post was spot-on.

    If you ask one of these authoritarian followers to demonstrate or speak to any values or principles they hold that would describe Libertarians you get angry ad hominem in return
    Libertarians actually have principles and values. I don't see any legitimate ones that

  • Elston G||

    I checked out your blog :-) :-)

    Lot of well written pieces.

    But you blew it when you took the "Soros pays people" talking points you got from liars in right-wing media.
    You lose all legitimacy with that shut.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    You know, they could delete 95% of the spam at this site with a script that just removed any comment starting with "I essentially".

  • hfader||

    "the chelonian senior senator from Kentucky"

    I almost blew coffee out of my nose when I looked up chelonian!

  • Tom Bombadil||

    He's the chelonian overlord we need.

  • Tankboy||

    I, for one, welcome our chelonian overlord.
    p.s. Not only did I have to look up "chelonian", but my browser underlines it as a typo. I guess Google's programmers flunked elementary school science too.

  • SIV||

    Looked up? Did they abolish elementary school science class sometime late last century?

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    a reptile of the order Testudines (formerly Chelonia ); a turtle, terrapin, or tortoise.
    relating to or denoting chelonians.

    Don't act like it's common knowledge outside of zoology freaks.

  • Longtobefree||

    Did they abolish elementary school science class sometime late last century?

    Yes, yes they did. Pay attention.

  • Conchfritters||

    Hey - he's banging the secretary of transportation so he must be doing something right. In a couple of years he'll go home and let the hound dogs lick him all over, so it's OK.

  • Jerryskids||

    The 1980s remind us of Ronald Reagan, not Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker.

    The 1980's also remind some of us of Tip Oh, Kneel. There's the guy Turtle Boy could learn a thing or two from. He was the master of the carrot-and-stick approach to getting what he wanted. Except it was more like he'd offer a piece of cake with one hand and grab you by the balls with the other and tell you to eat the fucking cake - or else.

    There's a reason Democratic majorities can get shit like Obamacare passed and Republicans can't get shit like Obamacare repeal passed - it takes a ruthless persuader to get people in line. McConnell should have a long time past been stripping people of committee assignments and seniority privileges for failing to toe the line. If you ain't voting the GOP agenda, what good are you? Get the fuck outta here if you're only interested in riding in the wagon and not helping to pull it.

  • Jerryskids||

    If McConnell had any balls, he'd be lining up Sarah Palin to primary Murkowski's ass and find Palin's equivalent in Maine to primary Collins' ass. You don't have a 53-vote majority in the Senate, Mitch, Murkowski and Collins are Democrats. You don't need those two, you don't want those two, on your team. Get rid of them. Demand to see the checks from every Republican Senator to show they contributed to the campaign, warn them of the wrath of God if you see a check showing up in Collins' or Murkowski's campaign finance reporting.

    Reminds me of George "Squish" Bush supporting Arlen Specter against Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania on the grounds that Toomey was "too conservative for Pennsylvania" and the GOP needed the RINO's vote in the Senate. And what happened after that? Specter fucking admitted what everybody already knew and switched back to the Democrat Party and Pat Toomey got elected to the other Senate seat. Fuck you, Bush, hope you're happy for supporting Democratic scorpions against your own damn party.

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    Collins gave a crucial vote for Kavanaugh. The alternative to her in left-tending Maine is a progressive Democrat.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    "There's a reason Democratic majorities can get shit like Obamacare passed and Republicans can't get shit like Obamacare repeal passed"

    Part of it is internal party discipline, but a big part of it is that the GOP at the federal level has been running a bait and switch scam for decades, running on doing things they never had the slightest intention of delivering on.

    It was an easy scam to pull off prior to the mid 90's, because the GOP didn't have the numbers to pass anything without the cooperation of Democrats. But when the dog caught the car in 1994, and they ended up with a majority, Republicans started to notice the scam.

    It's been civil war within the GOP ever since, as the party base tries to capture control away from the entrenched leadership, who continue to run on pretending to be conservatives, but less plausibly with every election cycle.

    McConnell refuses to hold votes on conservative measures because there are always Republican Senators who ran supporting them, but who'd vote against them if it came to it. And McConnnell doesn't want those liars exposed and primaried.

  • Ken Shultz||

    McConnell has been limited by the narrow majority the Republicans have had in the Senate. I call it, "a majority", but with the Republicans having to bend over backwards to assuage Murkowski, Heller, and Collins, even on fundamental Republican legislation like ObamaCare repeal and reform, it wasn't really a functioning majority.

    After all, McConnell could get neither repeal nor reform passed over his own party's objections--not even after the Republicans House had already passed its version and the president had promised to sign either repeal or reform. That isn't McConnell's failure. Neither repeal nor reform failed due to a lack of effort or creativity on McConnell's part. The votes simply weren't there.

    They weren't there on repeal because of the aforementioned senators.

    They weren't there for reform because of the objections of silly senators using the silly logic of people like Peter Suderman.

    Point is, McConnell couldn't pass much in the way of legislation because his majority in the Senate was so tenuous, with ObamaCare being emblematic of that. Whatever he's failed to do over the past two years, he's failed to do for similar reasons. You can't sell what people won't buy, and if the American people won't buy more libertarian solutions, I think that's probably our fault rather than McConnell's. Our job is marketing, and once we persuade the America people to want libertarian solutions to our problems, McConnell won't be able to stand in their way.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    True, but he could have held the votes anyway, lost them, and the voters could have removed the Republican Senators who'd been lying to them. Instead he prevented votes from being held, in order to keep Republican voters in the dark about who'd lied to get elected.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The vote to repeal failed.

    The vote to reform failed.

    They were both held and failed.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Those were cloture votes, not votes on passage.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    And in part, I hold the voters in states that elected Collins, Murkowski, McCain, and Flake (wtf IS up with AZ these days anyway?) responsible.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    You guys should quit worrying about Republican purity and start thinking about how you're going to persuade House Democrats on anything you wish to accomplish.

  • CDRSchafer||

    House Democrats need to be lined up against a wall if we're going to accomplish anything.

  • Longtobefree||

    Good idea, but they will not allow the wall to be built, so - - - -

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "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."

    Takes two to tango; McConnell did not invent the current state of zero sum polarization, he's just playing the hand he's been dealt. Now get cracking on those judicial vacancies. He's done well to prioritize the appellate courts, but there are 144 to go with 70 nominees pending. By the end of his first term Trump will have appointed over 25% of the entire federal judiciary, and do not be at all surprised if he gets a third on the Supreme Court. Now that's a silver lining.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    Alt text: Watch closely now as I swallow my own teeth!

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were confirmed with a simple majority after McConnell ended the minority party's ability to filibuster Supreme Court nominations.

    And that's all you need to know to understand how disastrous the McConnell Era has been for us Koch / Reason libertarians. Both justices are dangerous right-wing extremists who flunked the law school class where they teach you about SUPER-PRECEDENTS. Both literally want to turn this country into The Handmaid's Tale by overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, thereby eliminating access to abortion care in most of the country.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Ok. I'll pay along. When is this going to happen? Just asking because I want my own hand maid, or two.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Yeah! How many broads do I get?

  • Longtobefree||

    Behind the headlines, in the details, you hand is all you are going to get; continue to use it as always.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Also, "after [Harry Reid] ended the minority party's ability to filibuster Supreme Court nominations."
    There, FTFY

  • Big_B||

    NOPE! Reid ended the filibuster on federal court judges NOT supreme court judges.

    And really, it's McConnell who should get some credit for this too. At the time there were 90 federal judges that were awaiting a vote in the Senate, and the GOP was blocking them. 90!

    The McConnell legacy includes bending the rules in order to get extreme Judges. ( remember when they complained of "activist Judges"? too funny. ) If the Dems take the Senate, and Trump is in charge when RBG retires, is there any reason at all that the Dems should consider filling the vacancy with a Trump pick? Nope. In fact, why not just pull a McConnell and block all judges? Activist Judges are now going to be the new norm. You can thank Mitch.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Given the treasonous judges blacking everything Trump does with no actual legal justification, they were right about those 'activist judges'.

  • Big_B||

    " No actual legal Justification' .... Riiiiiight.

    When the Senate and president are from different parties, you get LESS activist judges. If they'd been serious about not wanting partisan judges, they would have fought Obama to make sure his picks were moderate. By blocking them, the GOP showed that what they really want is activist RIGHT WING judges.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Given the treasonous judges blacking everything Trump does with no actual legal justification, they were right about those 'activist judges'.

    All of this whining indicates the bigoted, half-educated, right-wing malcontents are especially cranky today. Did something happen in Congress today that has riled stale-thinking Republicans?

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    And why would you think a "nuclear option" that applied to district and appellate judges would not affect supreme court nominees? Harry set the precedent, now it's biting them in the ass.

  • No Longer Amused||

    He's the type of politician that makes an easy case for term limits.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "He's the type of politician that makes an easy case for term limits."

    As opposed to....................?

  • Social Justice is neither||

    Whiny proggie Petey can't see that all of this is modern politics as normal as created by the Dem leadership. Pelosi's objective was simply to stop Bush no legislative agenda required, Reid neutered Senate rules for fillibuster and legislative amendments and that was all met with silence.

    Sorry, when your team actively destroys norms and process when convenient for their ideological agenda then you don't get to complain about the other team playing by the rules you created.

  • Big_B||

    hahahaha. Too funny. Please tell me what president was denied his constitutional power to fill a supreme court justice? (Obama was the first and only.)
    This is all new in the McConnell era. He is the reason the dems ended the filibuster on federal judges. (not supreme court.) See my comment below.

  • Big_B||

    McConnell took it to a new historic level. It's a fact. There has never been a supreme court vacancy that was not filled by the active president until now. Obama had 105 federal vacancies when he left office too. ( you can look that up at )

    Reid gets all this credit for ending a filibuster, but that was on federal judges, not the supreme court, AND he only did it because McConnell was currently blocking a vote on 90 judges. That would have been close to 200 blocked judges from McConnell.

    Sure the Dems fought Bush, and Trump just like all politicians fight. Refusing to give 'advise and consent' is refusing to do your job though. We should have ended up with a moderate Supreme court Judge that both Hatch and Obama agreed was a good choice. ( the way the founding fathers wanted it.) Instead it will be activist judges from here on out. If you voted for Trump for the judges, I hope you enjoy it when GOP judges are blocked for extreme liberals.

  • Truthteller1||

    He is a dud, but in this day and age I doubt we will ever see great leaders in either building. It's a bunch of bratty children.

  • Winthrop||

    Great article until the very last line. McConnell gave us Trump? Political correctness run amuck and Hillary Clinton are responsible for giving us President Trump. We should thank President Trump for exposing McConnell and the other establishment Republicans for what they are... Democrats with an R next to their name. Come on Suderman, your smarter than this.

  • Cloudbuster||

    The Current Era Has Been Terrible for Reason Content.


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