Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is regarded by most conservatives and Republicans outside Washington as the embodiment of all that’s wrong with Washington. A recent Harvard study found him the least popular of all nationally known political figures and a group of my fellow conservatives told him in an open letter that as far as they’re concerned, he is “the swamp.” The Kentucky senator is not without significant faults and has in many ways made it easy for his detractors to paint him into the corner in which he finds himself, but they shouldn’t be so quick to paint him as an enemy of all they desire.
Mr. McConnell is tough, knows the rules of the body he runs and has the unenviable task of trying to lead and satisfy a fractious bunch of colleagues who share few beliefs, and are sometimes far more interested in furthering their own careers and grabbing face time on cable television than in doing the job entrusted to them by the voters on whom they depend for their jobs. While Mr. McConnell has been roundly condemned for “his” failure to pass Obamacare repeal last summer, critics ignore the fact that he was surprisingly far more able to keep his troops together for the vote than most had predicted. Indeed, many Republican senators who had previously let it be known that they might jump ship on him decided instead to vote for repeal. He failed because two senators who had based their re-election campaigns on repealing the law voted to keep it. Mr. McConnell wasn’t counting on Maine’s Susan Collins because she had never been for repeal, but he was essentially sold out by Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Arizona’s John McCain, who smilingly killed the repeal effort at the last minute.
Mr. McConnell has often played into the hands of his critics by dismissing their concerns. He plays the inside game as well as anyone. He continually fails to communicate effectively, though, with a skeptical public willing to excuse a failure to win, but not a failure to try. His detractors believe he too often avoids battles he doesn’t think can be won and thereby gives outsiders the impression that he has neither the stomach for them nor a real desire to make the changes the public seeks.
On the other hand, one has to consider what many of us consider the senator’s single greatest accomplishment as leader. It was Mr. McConnell who announced within days of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death that he would not allow the seat to be filled until after the 2016 election. Had he not done that, Neil Gorsuch would not be a Supreme Court justice today. Conservatives quite properly credit President Trump with appointing Judge Gorsuch, but too few remember that but for Mr. McConnell’s gritty stand, he would never have had a chance to do so, or they have forgotten that many of his colleagues at the time doubted the wisdom of his intransigence.
Mr. Trump came to Washington as an outsider and remains just that, so one can understand his frustration as he watched the Senate fail to deliver the votes he expected on policy changes he and most Republican Senate candidates promised the voters last year. His immediate reaction was to question the competence or motives of Senate “swamp dwellers” and their leader. As time has gone on, however, he seems to have developed a better understanding both of the way the Senate works and of the difficulties Mr. McConnell faces on a daily basis. It’s something he no doubt learned quickly after spending some time wondering how anyone can get people like Mr. McCain, Nevada’s Dean Heller or Arizona’s Jeff Flake to act like team players.
Mr. Trump would like a Senate Republican majority he can count on, and one suspects that Mr. McConnell himself would welcome a team more willing to act like a team, but they both have to work in the real world with the team they have. They know it’s easy enough for someone like Steve Bannon to declare a “season of war” against Republican incumbents, but they know, too, that when the war ends they need a Republican Senate majority if they expect to accomplish anything. They realize that if Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his friends win enough seats next year there will be no Obamacare repeal, and the next appointee to the Supreme Court won’t be someone from the list Mr. Trump keeps in his desk. The swamp will not only not be drained, but the floodgates will open.
That has to be why the president and Mr. McConnell stood together on Monday, declared themselves teammates and suggested, each in his own way, that Mr. Bannon might want to rethink launching such a war.
• David A. Keene is editor at large of The Washington Times.
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