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Why We Can’t Ignore McConnell’s Hypocrisy

Its obviousness shows Republicans no longer even try to persuade.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Stop the presses! Mitch McConnell has a nonsensical explanation for why his insistence that the Senate confirm a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Ginsburg six weeks before Election Day does not contradict his refusal, in 2016, to confirm a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia eight months before Election Day.

McConnell’s hypocrisy in this matter is so naked that it’s given at least momentary pause to Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. It may also lose him the support of Senator Mitt Romney.

For most people, the news that McConnell is being unprincipled will be roughly as surprising as the news that professional wrestling is staged. Still, we need to give this instance our attention, if for no other reason than to observe a sad decline in the art of political chicanery. American politicians have been bamboozling the public since the dawn of the republic, but in bygone days they at least tried to sound convincing. There was such a thing as skill, damn it, and craft.

No more. McConnell (and Trump, for that matter) have abandoned artful sophistry for mere gibberish. It makes a sort of cockeyed political sense. Why make a big effort to deceive when you’re no longer actually trying to convince anybody? These days, Republican politics is more about herding voters than persuading them. But we shouldn’t let it pass without protest that the American voter is being treated like cattle.

Here’s what McConnell said about ramming a Supreme Court nomination through the Senate in six weeks:

In the last midterm election before Justice [Antonin] Scalia’s death in 2016, Americans elected a Republican Senate majority because we pledged to check and balance the last days of a lame-duck president’s second term. We kept our promise. Since the 1880s, no Senate has confirmed an opposite-party president’s Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.

By contrast, Americans reelected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary. Once again, we will keep our promise.

President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.

As has been noted widely, McConnell did not, back in 2016, say that blocking President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland had anything to do with the Senate going Republican in 2014. His argument rested entirely on the fact that there would be a presidential election that year (even though it was more than half a year away). There was nothing unusual about that. Since 1900, the Senate has confirmed a Supreme Court justice during a presidential election year no fewer than seven times.

After Trump’s election, McConnell stopped contending that no Senate since the 1880s had ever confirmed a Supreme Court justice in a presidential election year, which wasn’t true, and started insisting that since the 1880s no “opposite-party” Senate had confirmed a Supreme Court justice in a presidential election year, which also wasn’t true. The last time it happened was in February 1988, when a Democratic Senate confirmed Anthony Kennedy, who was nominated by a Republican president (Ronald Reagan).

What McConnell could have said truthfully was that no Senate since the 1880s had confirmed an opposite-party president’s Supreme Court nominee in an election year—except when the nomination was made the year before. (Reagan nominated Kennedy in November 1987.) But that’s awfully complicated, and not particularly salient. So McConnell jettisoned that final clause—or perhaps just couldn’t remember it.

The only questions that matter are whether there was a good reason not to proceed with Senate confirmation in 2016, and whether there’s a good reason today. In 2016, McConnell says there was. According to his updated 2016 rationale, Americans had elected a Republican Senate to provide a “check and balance” to Obama. But when did “check and balance” come to mean “obstruct”? McConnell doesn’t consider that Americans might have elected a Republican Senate so that Obama would nominate a moderate of whom Republicans had spoken highly in the past. Which is what Obama did in choosing Judge Merrick Garland. The effort got neither man anywhere.

In the present circumstance, McConnell says that failing to confirm a Supreme Court nominee would be wrong because the American people chose a president and Senate of the same party. The only common thread with his retrofitted argument about 2016 is cynicism.  Just as divided government, in McConnell’s mind, meant “obstruct” in 2016, nondivided government in 2020 means “rubber stamp.” Neither formulation recognizes the Senate’s constitutional role to advise and consent, and in general to be a separate branch of government from the executive.

The most risible McConnell argument from 2016, back then, was his indignation against interrupting the sacred process of electing a president with a base partisan battle over a Supreme Court nomination. Today those comments seem even more ridiculous.

“Given that we are in the midst of the presidential election process,” McConnell wrote in a 2016 op-ed he coauthored with Senator Chuck Grassley, “we believe that the American people should seize the opportunity to weigh in on whom they trust to nominate the next person for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.” On the day that op-ed was published, the election was more than eight months away.

Today circumstances are different, but not in any way that’s helpful to McConnell’s argument. We are not “in the midst of the presidential election process.” We’re in the midst of a presidential election. Election Day may be six weeks away, but mail-in voting began in North Carolina on September 4. Mail-in and in-person voting are now underway in two dozen states. By Friday or Saturday, when Trump says he’ll announce his choice, the majority of states will have started voting. McConnell’s contempt for this process could not be more obvious.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But that’s my point. McConnell’s bad faith, which was never much of a secret, has become overwhelmingly obvious, like a really bad hairpiece on a Russian oligarch. There’s no finesse at all; no art, no effort. To rework that old truism about hypocrisy, McConnell’s vice can no longer be bothered to pay tribute to virtue. That’s as insulting as it is depressing.