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Maybe Mitch McConnell Is Just an Evil Mediocrity

Should Biden get his infrastructure deal, it will be a rare defeat for the Senate’s master of nihilism.

A close-up of Mitch McConnell as he walks down a darkened hallway.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Finally, no joke, it’s Infrastructure Week. At least, that was last week’s scuttlebutt—senators from both parties dismissed last Wednesday’s failed procedural vote as nothing to worry about and talked as if a deal was imminent, perhaps by midweek.

The Sunday papers were oddly quiet on the matter, which was really weird, considering what a big deal this is (the $1.2 trillion bill would be the largest infrastructure bill passed in decades, if not ever). But maybe their relative silence is a good sign: It means none of the negotiators is leaking stuff to try to kill the deal.

So I suppose there’s reason for optimism. But there’s also reason for skepticism. And that reason has one name. Mitch McConnell.

It’s almost beyond comprehension that McConnell will allow 10 Republican senators to vote for a major Biden administration initiative that will both constitute a huge legislative success for a Democratic president as well as pay electoral dividends to said administration through reelection time and beyond as roads are built and bridges are fixed and parking spots with charging stations become ubiquitous in a nation whose automakers are rapidly embracing electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

For now, however, it seems that a sufficient number of Republican senators—at least 10—will indeed vote for cloture to end debate and move the bill to a final passage vote. Presumably most of the 10 will then vote against final passage, so they can go back home and say they opposed this rampant socialism. It won’t matter at that point: The Democrats, with the help of Vice President Kamala Harris if needed, have the votes to send the bill to the White House for Biden’s signature on a simple majority basis.

This is not the Mitch McConnell we thought we knew. The Mitch McConnell we knew is the man who vowed to make Barack Obama a one-term president. What gives?

I have my educated guesses. The first is that maybe, deep down, he wants an infrastructure bill to pass. Maybe he actually wants that bridge in Louisville to be fixed before someone dies trying to cross it. Maybe he actually, genuinely thinks that infrastructure investment is good public policy.

OK, I guess we can rule that one out.

The second possibility is that he doesn’t have the ironclad control over his caucus that we’ve long assumed he has. While it’s been years since McConnell has cared a whit about good public policy, there evidently are a few Republicans in the Senate who still do. Their interest in policy is highly compromised by the fact that they refuse to pay for anything, which will be the rock upon which this bill crashes, if it does. But Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski and a few others actually see the value of infrastructure investment, across the country and in their states, and they want to be able to claim a share of the credit.

After all, Congress did pass an infrastructure bill in 2015, late in Obama’s term, and it did so on a largely bipartisan basis. That was a more prosaic highway bill (with some money for transit), and it was considerably smaller, around $300 billion. But that’s still a real chunk of change. It passed both houses overwhelmingly. So once in a while, Republicans do actually do something that’s reasonable.

Remember also that this bill is popular, even among rank-and-file Republicans. As corrupted as our democracy has become, public opinion and constituent input still matter. I’d imagine that heads of chambers of commerce from Paducah to Bowling Green to Ashland are calling Mitch’s office and pleading with him about how their cities could use the money.

Finally, the third possibility is that McConnell does have ironclad control of his caucus, and the cloture vote will fail, and this whole song and dance is just another legislative delusion. Rob Portman and the rest of them are just going through the motions, knowing that when vote time comes, Mitch will bring the hammer down.

This possibility has to be taken very seriously. A legislative leader has all kinds of ways to exercise leverage over members; for example, if they vote for a Biden bill and they end up being primaried by some House loon, McConnell can dry up a lot of their money sources. They all know this. McConnell doesn’t even have to say it. And they all know which House wingnut and which local right-wing lumber magnate is gunning for their seat. So it would hardly be shocking if the whole thing fell apart.

But ... what if it doesn’t? That would be pretty amazing. Dan Balz had an analysis piece in The Washington Post Sunday warning that even if this bill does succeed, people shouldn’t start thinking that it would herald a new era of bipartisanship.

To which I say, he’s right of course, but so what? Biden doesn’t need Republican votes for much of anything else. If he gets this bill and the Democrats can then pass a reconciliation bill in the $3 trillion area, the Biden administration, by dint of those two bills and the earlier Covid relief act, will have done more to advance public investment and shift the economic paradigm than any administration since Franklin Roosevelt’s.

It would be an amazing first year. As ever with such bills, they are at the same time monumentally historic and not enough. And they would leave important unfinished business, namely passing voting rights and raising the minimum wage.

But if 10 Senate Republicans allow this bill to pass, that would give us a strong signal that McConnell isn’t the evil genius liberals think he is. He’s just an evil mediocrity, who benefits from the Senate’s anti-democratic structure and from having no conscience. It’s high time he lost one.