Al Cross: For better or worse, McConnell is consequential

The contrast was stark in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

The east side was chaos, as the new, thin Republican majority in the House of Representatives failed to elect a speaker, the prerequisite for doing any other business.

The west side was calm and comity, as Democrats kept nominal control of the Senate and its powerful Republican minority was still led by Mitch McConnell, who started his 17th year as party leader.

That’s a record, and McConnell marked it with a speech largely devoted to the career of Montana Democrat Mike Mansfield, who held the record until Tuesday. (Mansfield still holds the 16-year record, 1961 through 1976, for tenure as majority leader, a job that only became official about 100 years ago.)

McConnell, 80, has now achieved his main stated ambitions as a senator: to be majority leader, which he was in 2015-21 and might be again in 2025-26; and to be the longest-serving party leader.

Halfway through his first two-year term as majority leader, it seemed that those distinctions would be McConnell’s main epitaph, because long tenure was his chief accomplishment as a senator. And then Antonin Scalia died.

By blocking action on Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia on the Supreme Court, McConnell preserved its conservative majority and created an issue useful to Republicans, especially Donald Trump, who used promises about judicial nominations to win favor of evangelicals who were skeptical of him – and without whom he probably would not have been elected.

After Trump and senators filled Scalia’s seat with Neil Gorsuch, the next high-court nominee was Brett Kavanaugh, who hit the skids because of allegations about youthful misconduct. McConnell hung tough and won, with one vote to spare. Then he pushed through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination eight days before the presidential election on a purely partisan vote, the first for a justice in 150 years.

At that point, it looked as if McConnell’s main legacy would be decades of Supreme Court conservatism. And then Donald Trump lost the election. And refused to concede.

Once the Electoral College voted, McConnell declared Trump the loser, and later blamed him for the Jan. 6 riot, but voted not to convict him in the impeachment trial. He cited a technicality (Trump was out of office) but it became clear that he had been unwilling or unable to persuade 16 other Republicans to create the two-thirds majority needed to convict. And they didn’t want to risk Trump creating a new political party.

McConnell’s new mission, in likely his last term, seems to be saving the Republican Party from Trump.

He has avoided mentioning Trump’s name for more than two years, knowing the former president’s grip on most Republican voters, while waiting for shoes to drop in the riot investigations. As they have, he has gradually putting his foot on the anti-Trump accelerator.

Before the election, McConnell suggested that Republicans might not regain the Senate majority due to “candidate quality,” a reference to subpar candidates nominated with Trump’s help. When his implied prediction came true, he said, “I think the former president’s political clout has diminished. . . . We lost support that we needed among independents and moderate Republicans, primarily related to the view they had of us as a party — largely made by the former president — that we were sort of nasty and tended toward chaos.”

That view was surely reinforced by Tuesday’s chaos in the House, which is no longer just fearful of Trump and his base, but more reflective of it, with new, election-denying MAGA members.

McConnell, who can be calm to a fault, is running against chaos and its chief avatar, Trump. He knows elections are still decided by voters who want Congress to do things to help the country, and that’s one reason he supported bills that passed the Senate with a minority of Republicans, such as the infrastructure bill that he celebrated with President Biden and Gov. Andy Beshear at the Brent Spence Bridge on Wednesday.

McConnell has also been quick to strike at Trump slips, such as the dinner with the widely known anti-Semite and the call for “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” to justify his lies about the 2020 election.

Trump remains a stout adversary. He could still be the party’s 2024 nominee, and he recently raised the third-party option, sharing an article promoting the idea. He has changed the GOP, and now could destroy it. McConnell’s final ambition may be to prevent that.

One of McConnell’s favorite compliments is to call someone “consequential,” which is a way of acknowledging accomplishments without approving them. Whatever your opinion of him, there is no doubt he is one of the most consequential politicians in American history. And he may yet be more so.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010. The NKyTribune is the anchor home for his column.