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Mitch McConnell Is No Genius

He still supports Trump and worships campaign donors. It may cost Republicans their Senate majority.

Damon Winter/The New York Time​s/Redux

Mitch McConnell believes in one political god: campaign cash. Since he got his start in Kentucky politics in the 1970s, masquerading as a moderate Republican, he has been the Gordon Gekko of politics. After he was elected to the Senate in 1984, no one spent more time ingratiating himself with top GOP donors. As Alec MacGillis recounts in his biography, The Cynic, McConnell even met his wealthy wife, Elaine Chao, the daughter of a shipping magnate, while fundraising in 1987. By the late 1990s, McConnell—a politician who normally displays the emotional range of a coatrack—was the most passionate opponent of any effort to rein in the wealthy through campaign finance reform. He believed Democrats would always struggle to match the spigot of special interest money the GOP could attract by preaching the gospel of low taxes and minimal regulation. And, especially after the Citizens United decision—as the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, and Super PACs put together by Karl Rove dominated campaign finance—McConnell was right.

The Capitol Hill press corps worships anyone who wields legislative power with the same ferocity as Lyndon Johnson—even if, in McConnell’s case, the master strategist is proudly devoid of principle. Judging from his recent clips, the laconic and unemotional McConnell is the true stable genius of our time. When the Senate rejected impeachment, the press broke out into a new round of hosannas over his legislative sleight of hand. CNN’s website ran an article trumpeting how he had pulled off the “near-impossible.” And McClatchy suggested that impeachment was “the triumphant culmination of McConnell’s years of study, observation and application of consensus-building strategies.”

In the central casting of the Trump era, someone has to play the evil genius on Capitol Hill—and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is too bland for the role. McConnell has been all too happy to take on the part. To his credit (and, yes, the credit is offered grudgingly), he is a master of the Senate rules and adroit at holding his caucus together. But, in campaign terms, the 78-year-old McConnell is a man of the 1980s still viewed as a master of electoral politics in 2020. Time has passed McConnell by—and most reporters fail to realize it. His ability to steer money to GOP incumbents was what built his reputation as a strategic mastermind, but Republicans no longer have a monopoly on political money. Now, he is scrambling to preserve his majority in an election that will hinge on a pandemic, an economic collapse, and an incompetent president. If McConnell had an ounce of introspection, he might rethink his decision to bow and scrape before the Great God Trump. Because it didn’t have to be this way for Mitch McConnell.

When Trump took office, McConnell had a choice. The Senate majority leader had already displayed his distaste for Trump during the campaign, when he called the Access Hollywood tape “repugnant” and demanded that the nominee “apologize directly to women.” In theory, McConnell could have quietly encouraged the more endangered or principled members of his caucus to assert their independence in the face of an incompetent and dangerously mercurial president. That is what happened when leading Senate Democrats rebelled against Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam in the 1960s and Republicans made Watergate a bipartisan cause in the 1970s.

Instead, McConnell hitched his wagon to Trump’s. When the president demanded the repeal of Obamacare without so much as a fig leaf of a replacement, McConnell obligingly went along—even though Colorado’s Cory Gardner, the most endangered Republican senator in 2020, initially bristled at the rushed pace. When Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination teetered on the brink, McConnell didn’t ask Trump to name another hard-right jurist. Instead, he pressured Maine’s Susan Collins to cast a vote that would destroy her veneer as purported moderate and threaten her 2020 reelection.

McConnell saw Trump as a vehicle to get what he craved—a long gray line of mediocre federal judges bearing the imprimatur of the Federalist Society. Like a minor-league Machiavelli, McConnell has transformed the Senate from the “world’s greatest deliberative body” into the world’s greatest conveyor belt. The average conservative voter doesn’t care who sits on the federal district court in North Dakota. But McConnell cares passionately, because wealthy donors want to populate the federal court system with Federalist Society members who would dismantle the regulatory state.

This may be McConnell’s biggest political misstep. Even in the midst of a pandemic, he believes that campaign donors swing elections. In late spring—as the unemployment rate rose to a level last seen after the fall of Rome in 476—McConnell demanded that any future stimulus must include a guarantee that businesses cannot be sued for reopening too soon. Rather than allowing his beleaguered members to cast an easy vote in support of more federal spending to tamp down the raging Covid-19 recession, McConnell all but shouted, “Big donors first,” as he displayed his true priorities in the midst of the crisis.

Nothing more dramatically illustrates McConnell’s strategic miscalculations than his own reelection campaign for a seventh term from Kentucky, where Amy McGrath, McConnell’s likely Democratic challenger, actually raised more money ($30 million) than he did ($26 million) through the end of March—a reminder that money no longer serves as protective armor for McConnell.

It’s still too early to game out the 2020 Senate races, but Republicans are on the defense almost everywhere. Most handicappers believe that Gardner is a lost cause—and Trump recently complained to McConnell that Martha McSally was jeopardizing the president’s campaign in Arizona. Even seemingly safe Republicans such as Joni Ernst in Iowa are headed for a bumpy ride. And in Montana, a state that Trump carried by 20 points, incumbent Steve Daines could lose to Steve Bullock.

Even as McConnell’s power base is crumbling, the majority leader’s reputation for political sagacity seems impervious to reality. It may be that political reporters are almost as smitten with the power of political money as McConnell is. But the glowing press clips could take on a different tone if McConnell earns the title that would accompany him for the rest of his career: “former Senate majority leader.”