Mitch McConnell has been taking quite a beating from President Trump for failing to get a health care reform bill through the Senate, but even Mr. Trump has largely conceded that John McCain, alone blew up the majority leader’s painstakingly crafted compromise. The president’s criticisms seem rather tame compared to several popular conservative pundits. Sean Hannity, for one, rails that Mr. McConnell is not only untrustworthy but “spineless” and needs to “retire,” while Mark Levin talks of the leader’s “disastrous reign.”
Disastrous? Whatever his failings, a good case can be made that if it weren’t for the shrewd tactics of the Kentucky senator, Hillary Clinton could be sitting in the White House, conservative favorite Neil Gorsuch would not be ensconced on the Supreme Court, and the president would not be loading up the Courts of Appeals with conservative jurists positioned to shape the culture and the laws of our nation for years to come.
A year ago in February, when Justice Antonin Scalia died of a heart attack, the Senate majority leader moved within hours to block President Obama from filling his seat, insisting he wouldn’t even hold hearings on an Obama nominee. He rightly feared too many Republican senators up for re-election might go for a justice that had a “moderate” record and who many had praised in the past. “It was a gutsy move,” says a close McConnell confidant, observing that he did it without consulting colleagues and with numerous Republican senators expressing grave concerns about his decision. Testing Mr. McConnell’s resolve, Mr. Obama named Merrick Garland as Scalia’s replacement, the very kind of selection Mr. McConnell worried about. Though viewed as a moderate by even many in the Republican Party, Judge Garland’s record revealed he was clearly no Scalia. Not even close.
Despite mounting calls by Mr. Obama for hearings, “bipartisan” legal scholars, corporate lawyers, media pundits, skittish Republicans and liberal activists, Mr. McConnell never wavered. So persuasive was the Kentuckian with his fellow Republicans about holding out for a potential Trump victory, virtually all Republican senators, including the 11 on the Judiciary panel, would rally around Mitch.
Shortly after Mr. Trump won the election, he nominated a McConnell favorite, Neil Gorsuch, for the Scalia spot. When Judge Gorsuch won 54-to-45 — with every Republican voting for him, including such unreliables as Susan Collins and John McCain — Mr. McConnell emerged as a hero among the party faithful and began receiving, as a McConnell insider tells me, “standing ovations at GOP gatherings for the next three months.” Scalia’s family, it turned out, couldn’t thank Mr. McConnell enough.
The majority leader exulted to The Washington Post’s Paul Kane that this was the greatest achievement in his political career. As the candidate’s chief court strategist, Mr. McConnell tirelessly pressed his views on Mr. Trump and his top legal adviser, Donald McGahn, finally persuaded the Republican candidate to dramatically reassure his backers that his pledge to fill the Supreme Court with conservatives was no idle promise. He told him not only to publish a list of potential court appointees but to make sure they were approved by the prestigious, right-leaning Federalist Society. Mr. Trump agreed, eventually putting out a list of 21 names, with critical input from the conservative Heritage Foundation as well.
Mr. Trump relished exploiting the issue before the enormous crowds he was getting. “If you really like Donald Trump that’s great,” he would tell folks gathered at his monster rallies, “but if you don’t, you have to vote for me anyway — you know why? Supreme Court judges!”
“The single biggest issue in bringing Republicans home was the Supreme Court,” Mr. McConnell told Mr. Kane, an assertion basically affirmed by post-election surveys and underscored by Mr. Trump’s overwhelming backing from white evangelical Christians. In January 2017, Mr. Trump nominated Judge Gorsuch. In April, Judge Gorsuch was confirmed by the Senate with unanimous Republican approval. Nor is this the end of the story. Mr. Trump’s now-famous list of 21 not only helped salvage his candidacy and empower him, not Hillary, to replace Scalia, but became a guide for the president’s choices on the Courts of Appeals.
Ron Klain, a senior White House aide to Barack Obama, fears that Mr. Trump is now undoing Mr. Obama’s court-packing. The president, Mr. Klain argues, “is proving wildly successful in naming youthful conservative nominees to the federal bench in record-setting numbers.”
Not only has Judge Gorsuch been placed on the Supreme Court, but Mr. Trump has “selected 27 lower-court judges as of mid-July. That’s three times Obama’s total and more than double the totals of Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton — combined. For the Courts of Appeals — the final authority for 95 percent of federal cases — no president before Trump named more than three judges whose nominations were processed in his first six months. Trump has named nine. Trump is on pace to more than double the number of federal judges nominated by any president in his first year.”
McConnell has clearly been key to this success. Not bad for a spineless, ineffective, disastrous majority leader.
• Allan H. Ryskind is a former editor and owner of Human Events, and the author of “Hollywood Traitors” (Regnery History, 2015).
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.