Mitch McConnell’s Exit

By Rafael Hoffman

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell R-Ky. walks to a Republican luncheon, after announcing that he will step down as Senate Republican leader in November, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

After a decades-long tenure in Republican Senate leadership, Senator Mitch McConnell, last week, announced he would retire as leader of the party’s caucus.

His Senate career stretches back to 1984, and Senator McConnell has been at the top of the leadership team since 2006, longer than anyone else in history.

In that time, his southern drawl, near-monotone voice, and stone-faced image became an oft-caricatured symbol of his deft and steadfast use of the Senate’s powers — something those in his political corner cheered.

For the left, Senator McConnell was a formidable foe earning much derision from Democrats and the media for halting many of former President Barack Obama’s legislative initiatives from immigration to gun control. Their ire boiled over when he refused to hold a vote for (now Attorney General) Merrick Garland, President Obama’s pick to replace Justice Antonin Scalia.

As the Republican party shifted increasingly towards Trump-style populism, Senator McConnell gained more critics from the right as well. He was criticized for his lack of combativeness and commitment to fighting for conservative social priorities. His regard for international free trade and bipartisan deal-cutting earned him foes as well.

Senator McConnell is now 82 and has suffered health challenges in the wake of a fall. His age, health, and growing disconnect from younger elements of the GOP led to increasing calls that it was time for him to step aside. He announced that he would remain in the Senate until the end of his term in 2027 but leave leadership in November, saying in a floor speech that “one of life’s most underappreciated talents is to know when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter.”

His coming departure sets off a race of several candidates to replace the old-school Kentuckian as leader, leaving questions about how the transition could impact the GOP and the Senate as an institution.

Stewart Verdery.

To gain a better understanding of Senator McConnell’s legacy and how his exit could impact the future, Hamodia spoke with Stewart Verdery, CEO and founder of Monument Advocacy.

Mr. Verdery worked closely with the Republican Senate conference dating back to the 1990s when he served as an advisor eventually to the GOP whip’s office. After that he remained in close contact with the Senate GOP, first as an assistant Homeland Security Secretary during the administration of former President George W. Bush and since then as a Washington lobbyist.

I think of McConnell mostly as being the last of the generation of Bob Dole, Trent Lott, and Bill First rather than as the first of a new generation. They were mostly interested in making the Senate work. Working behind the scenes to get things done, as opposed to getting on cable TV and social media. Acting with a very public flamboyance.

Where McConnell differed from Dole and Lott was on his focus on confirming judges. His understanding was that having as many conservative judges as possible at all levels of the judiciary was going to make a long-term difference.

For the most part, pre-McConnell, Republicans allowed Democrats to confirm their judges as bargaining chips for their own priorities. McConnell saw a lot of value in each judge, confirming conservative ones or blocking liberal judges.

He was very interested in campaign finance. In his view, it was very important that parties have a free hand to coordinate with their candidates. He wanted very robust speech protections and did not like limits on campaign spending or contributions. He fought efforts of any kind to make campaigns publicly funded. McCain-Feingold became the most famous campaign finance bill, but there were plenty of others. He thought all these bills were meant to tilt the electoral system towards the Democrats, and he fought them tooth and nail.

McConnell was also very focused on union and labor issues, which have been a constant tug of war between Democrats and Republicans. McConnell was at the forefront of trying to protect the “right to work,” fighting off union control of industries. 

His third major focus was his home state of Kentucky. He wasn’t super parochial, as Trent Lott was about Mississippi. But McConnell recognized that Kentucky was a poor state, and he did a good job of making sure it got its fair share of federal resources. Even as he became more of a national figure, he remained a state politician.

Regarding Senator McConnell’s belief that campaign finance reform favored Democrats, do you think he failed to recognize that as corporate America moved away from Republicans, the party’s interests on this matter have shifted?

I think his opposition wasn’t just that it was the right thing for Republicans. McConnell thought it was the right thing to do for free speech. He doesn’t like the fact that Democrats have now figured out ways to raise more money than Republicans, but he would defend their right to do it.

In the 1990s, when flag-burning was a big issue on the right, McConnell voted against banning it both legislatively and as a constitutional amendment. As unpopular as it was with a lot of Republicans at the time, he was a fierce defender of free speech.

In addition to the speech angle, he used to say that we spend more money on potato chips than political campaigns. To his mind, campaigns were underfunded, and more money should be spent to educate voters and help them better understand their choices.

President Barack Obama meets with, from left, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nev., Vice President Joe Biden, the president, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 1, 2016, to discuss the vacancy in the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

He was a very good vote counter. Very good at trying to find consensus behind the scenes, as opposed to negotiating in public. McConnell understood that less is more. When you spoke to him privately, he was very careful not to overpromise, not to talk about things he wasn’t sure he could deliver.

That’s why you hear Democrats like President Biden say that while they don’t agree about much, McConnell was always straight with them. He didn’t go to one group and tell them one thing, and then tell another group something else.

That was part of his being so famously tight-lipped at press conferences. He was a man of few words because he understood, the more you say, the more obstacles you could be making to accomplishing your goals.

McConnell was very good at working Senate procedure. He had a knack for figuring out the timing of when to cut a deal and when to throw up a blockade.

He understood that Senate committees act as a sort of underbelly to power and was careful to put the right people in the right places. McConnell also had a really talented staff that has been with him for a long time. Senate staff is basically anonymous, but he stayed away from ideologues who flip out over their issues, and kept his office staffed with people who had built up an expertise over decades.

As Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., left, listens, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch speaks to an audience at the University of Louisville, Sept. 21, 2017, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

He was much cleverer and quicker-witted than the public saw. McConnell can cut a joke as good as anybody. But he’s not flamboyant. His demeanor, his old-school appearance, that’s him. The way he’s caricatured in the media might be unflattering, but it’s not too far off.

That was part of his strength. He didn’t care what people thought of him, he only cared about results. Sometimes, people didn’t like him, but that was sort of the point. That’s what happened during the Garland appointment. He went out and took the bullets, which made it easier for other Republicans. These things didn’t bother Mitch McConnell, because he understood that it made it easier for him to get the outcome he wanted.

You can see the caucus change cycle by cycle. More people come in who are less interested in McConnell’s kind of politics. That started with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and continued with people like Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, and Tom Cotton. These are GOP senators who parted ways with the Republican alliance with big business. They look at big business as complicit with big government and progressive social change. These trends accelerated when Trump came to the scene.

That was never McConnell’s view. He thinks that businesses of all sizes are good for the country and necessary for a successful America.

The caucus has gotten harder and harder to manage, but he did the best he could. McConnell navigated some pretty important compromises in the last couple of years, the CHIPS Act, the infrastructure bill, Ukraine funding. But with each vote that got trickier.

When Rob Portman is replaced by JD Vance and figures like Josh Hawley enter the Senate, those types of deals gets harder. It’s not just that they hold some different views than McConnell. They’re less deferential to leadership in general. Also, their goal is to be a national figure. That’s a big change from the older generation of Senators who had to be much more attentive to their home states and were ready to follow leadership on big issues. Now, a lot of people in Congress use national issues to do their fundraising from donors outside of their constituencies.

One thing that changed in how the Senate operates is that there used to be more open-ended floor debate over bills. That largely ended, not because McConnell or anyone else wanted it to, but because for most of the last two decades, we’ve had divided government. That means the White House has to be involved in molding legislation. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to have a legislative process on the floor.

I think his general theory was to obstruct legislation you don’t agree with for as long as you can. But, once he read the cards that he couldn’t do that anymore, he was ready to cut a deal and get a partial win, rather than have that bill pass with no deal and a total loss.

The most important example is probably the fiscal compromise after the 2012 election. The Bush tax cuts were expiring and there was pressure from the fiscal cliff and shutdown threats. McConnell worked out a tax deal with Obama and worked very closely with then-Vice President Biden to get terms which locked in most of the Bush tax cuts, except on some for high-income brackets. That angered a lot of other Republicans, but it was hugely impactful and basically set tax policy until the Trump administration.

He’s a realist. When your party controls the Presidency and one or both houses of Congress, you can have a different kind of agenda. But when you only have partial power, you’ve got to figure out how to leverage it.

Shutting down the government over Obamacare, when you don’t control enough of government to do anything about it, to him, was just a silly waste of time. 

It was a very divisive era and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Obama was notoriously dismissive of Congress and did not like dealing with it. He wasn’t willing to get into the mud and work out deals with people like McConnell or John Boehner. Reid’s style was to work everything out of his office.

Harry Reid also had a tactic of taking bills passed by Democrats in the House and bringing them to the Senate floor for a vote, knowing he didn’t have 60 votes. Then McConnell would engineer a filibuster to stop it. Who’s the obstructionist when that happens? McConnell for not signing off on these bills or Reid for not allowing any amendments?

It seems to me that if you look at Obama, Reid, and McConnell, McConnell is the least partisan person in that room.

There’s been a steady escalation on the judge wars for close to 40 years. In my view, Democrats are the ones who are escalating more often than Republicans. That started in 1986 with the first rejection of a clearly qualified Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork, followed by the first filibuster for a circuit court nominee of Migel Estrada in 2003. In 2006, Democrats orchestrated what was an ultimately unsuccessful filibuster against a Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito. Then in 2013, Harry Reid used the nuclear option to suspend the filibuster on circuit court nominees, blocking out Republican opposition from the process.

Was what McConnell did on Garland an escalation? Of course it was. But it’s a logical one based on what Democrats did for decades beforehand.

If the situation was reversed and Bush tried to appoint a court nominee in his last year in office, does anyone really think Harry Reid would have allowed a confirmation vote?

He tried to defend what had been traditional Republican principles like free trade and robust foreign policy. He held traditional Republican views on social issues too, but they never seemed to be his cause célèbres. McConnell was more animated by economic and legal issues, as opposed to being a culture warrior.

His accomplishments in crafting a conservative judiciary have a key role in these social issues when they get to the courts. Still, I think his interest in judicial appointments had more to do with regulatory matters, more than stopping social progressivism.

McConnell was always a believer in free trade. For most of his time in politics, most of the angst about these issues came from the left that worried trade deals would undermine environmental or labor standards. For the most part, Republicans backed them. Now, the angst about trade deals is more bipartisan.

McConnell was open to measures to counter unfair competition from nations like China, but he never tried to limit trade with allies.

It’s hard to imagine that anybody could win by being antagonistic with Trump. He might be president again and even if not, he still has the biggest megaphone.

Like any congressional leader, they have to be good at big press conferences and fundraising. They also need to have chips in the bank with their colleagues.

The candidates are out there. It’s probably going to come down to a contest between someone from the older generation like John Cornyn who’s been working on getting this job for 20 years, and someone younger and more openly aligned with the Trump camp like Steve Daines, who runs the National Senatorial Committee. Trump has a good relationship with both. Cornyn is the most likely to win, the only question is whether his time has already passed.

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!