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Machiavellian Mitch McConnell Makes His Mark

Through crises, the Senate majority leader relentlessly pursues his particular vision of a center-right America.
mitch mcconnell

WASHINGTON– Here’s the handle: 

Four years after Donald Trump convulsed Republican politics for good, ending orthodoxies on trade and foreign policy, flouting conservative norms on matters personal, (critics would argue) mastering the paranoid style, and anchoring the American Right in opposition to unscrutinized immigration, the grand old party remains as much the president’s as it does his opposite on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue.    

Mitch McConnell, 78, is the grand master of our septuagenarian’s republic. 

As if it needed proving, as America confronts its most grievous challenge in twelve years, if not ninety, it’s the senate majority leader, not necessarily the president, nor even the venerated speaker of the House, who is the architect of our nation’s response. 

Controversially, this weekend Sen. McConnell’s fingerprints were on the forestalling of a flawed, but doubtless necessary bailout package meant to arrest the commercial catastrophe borne from the Coronavirus. Reporting is mixed on the matter, true too of my own sourcing, but still a rough picture has come into view: 

Democrats balked at the eleventh hour, under leftist pressure, and mounted opposition to the corporatist sweep of the McConnell approach, bailouts for Boeing and the nation’s airlines, twinned with limited restrictions on recipients’ firing and hiring privileges.

Liberals argue such provisions could be engaged with, if not enacted, separately. McConnell’s a codger, but not an ignorant one. 

The Kentucky senator knows the trojan horse approach is the shortest way home, and appears to be using continued market meltdown as a bully club to intimidate the recalcitrant. Boeing must be handled in the initial package. 

Render unto Caesar what it is Caesar’s. For McConnell, any other approach is dead letter. Trump’s not going to object, loudly at least, lest he lose his bulwark against Senate conviction (remember impeachment? Me neither.) 

But he’s much more than that. McConnell is the essential man. The senior senator from Kentucky is Charon, ferryman of the White House’s agenda.   

Assuredly, life’s not fair. But on Tuesday, it is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the leader of America’s minority party, who is on the defensive.

“We know that there’s probably about 150 million working people right now who are watching and listening to you and want to know whether they’ll have a job on Friday,” Jim Cramer, eminence grise of financial television, pressed Pelosi Tuesday. 

“I think there is real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours,” a defensive Pelosi told Cramer. Charles Schumer, the senate’s minority leader, said Monday night that he expected a deal in the morning Tuesday. As I eat lunch Tuesday, still no dice. 

The Democrats, somehow, yet again, are on their back foot, even with an ostensibly sympathetic prerogative, “taking the bill from a place that was trickle down for workers,” as Pelosi told CNBC. Give McConnell his due: it’s astonishing what he can achieve for himself with only a middling hand.

In interviews, McConnell has repeatedly sought to square the circle of the Trump years, portraying Trump as a natural, if goofy extension of the Reagan, House of Bush approach that has defined a generation of conservatism. Unlike his former contemporary, House Speaker Paul Ryan, McConnell never blanched from Donald Trump as Republican standard bearer, once he secured power in the summer of 2016. 

America is a center right country, McConnell emphasizes, and he intends to bring it center right governance, spectacular standard-bearers be damned. That means judges, tax cuts, a beefy defense budget and faith in America’s great companies. Is Mitch McConnell a good man? It’s a light lift to argue that McConnell’s style capitalism veers on corporatism. More clear: McConnell will be excoriated by history for uncritical faith in American primacy, culminating in the disastrous Iraq war. But on that, he’ll hang together with a generation of U.S. leadership. But it’s likely McConnell agrees in spirit with a president more his style, George W. Bush, who quipped: “History we won’t know, we’ll all be dead.”

The two men, Trump and McConnell, are not close. And now that the pragmatic Joe Biden, not the ponderous Barack Obama, the pugilistic Trump, or the arch-progressive Bernie Sanders, could be in power, it’s no stretch to ponder that McConnell could be secretly agnostic on Trump’s eventual fate. McConnell has warred with the more ideological elements of the Trump movement. 

Steve Bannon, McConnell’s famous bete noire, who is on the rise again, rewarded for his prescience on the seriousness of COVID-19, urges that we not jerk back to business as usual. Bannon thinks we should jump off the high dive.  “One of the worst weeks in our country’s history is upon us,” Bannon told me. The course ahead, for the ex-White House chief strategist, is crystal clear: “Hard lockdown.”

For the president, the situation is an abattoir. 

Trump, and his whip, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, need a stimulus package pronto, in anticipation of a broader, new approach to get America back to work. Reports out Tuesday morning indicate that the president could push to roll back restrictions as soon as next Monday, flouting the advice of medical mandarins, and folks like Bannon.  

Stephen Moore, consigliere ex-officio to the president, told the Wall Street Journal: “We can’t be in the situation we’re in now six weeks from now because the carnage to the economy will have cascaded to a great effect.” 

Moore even rebutted Mnuchin, saying a total war footing for even ten to twelve weeks, as Mnuchin’s floated, is simply “not plausible” and would be responsible for “economic chaos, trillions of dollars of losses.”    

If Trump were to pursue such an audacious course, he would go to war with facets of his own administration, nothing new, but with stakes unprecedented. 

Once again, Trump will need Mitch, as they call him in Kentucky, in his corner.