The Weekly Standard published a gusher last week on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Fred Barnes, the magazine’s executive editor, fell all over himself praising McConnell’s “pragmatism and political skill . . . [which] allows little to get in the way of winning.”
Barnes went on to brag about the majority leader’s cool demeanor, his close advisors who are “team players,” and his willingness to dismiss “conservatives who insist on pushing right-wing issues with no chance of passage.”
Barnes practically genuflects before the 84 judges confirmed to the lower courts over the past two years, in addition to two confirmations to the Supreme Court. To the latter point, Barnes attributes the Senate midterm victory to McConnell’s deft handling of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation.
These claims deserve examination.
Confirming Judges Nowadays Is Not Hard
In 2013, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) unleashed the so-called “nuclear option” on the Senate, eliminating the 60-vote threshold for confirmations of judicial and executive branch nominees. With the 60-vote hurdle out of the way, McConnell’s “success” in confirming judges has been less about his leadership skills, and more about simple scheduling, and prioritizing judicial nominees over advancing other components of the Trump agenda. The most McConnell has to do is schedule a vote . . . and then vote. Not really the stuff of rocket science or strategic procedural genius.
True, the current 51-seat GOP majority is slim, and presents challenges, usually in the form of the two Republican moderates, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But while GOP leaders make a big show of “needing” Murkowski and Collins, in reality, most of the Senate’s confirmation votes have been solidly bipartisan, requiring very little tactical effort on the part of Senate leaders.
Moreover, while the Senate has churned through appellate confirmations, over 50 district court judges are still awaiting confirmation. In fact, more judicial vacancies exist now than when Trump took office; to say nothing of the more than 100 Trump Administration confirmations that are stalled in the Republican Senate.
An Underwhelming Victory
Senate Republicans walked into the 2018 midterm with the best map a majority party has ever had. Literally, ever. Since 1790. With Democrats forced to defend 26 seats and Republicans defending only six, the Senate GOP had a majority advantage of 20 seats. So why was McConnell constantly spinning the narrative that the GOP might lose?
In fairness, it’s always good to be vigilant. A good politician never takes victory for granted. But if McConnell is a seasoned tactician at anything, it’s the political tactic of lowering expectations. Put the fear of God into the party that you might lose even with a 20-seat advantage, and, well, that makes simply not losing look like a master stroke.
In reality, a two-seat pickup in red states Missouri and North Dakota is underwhelming considering the GOP’s numerical advantage (Florida is still in recount, but if Rick Scott can take out Bill Nelson, that takes the GOP pickups to three).
It’s coupled with the fact that earlier this year, deep red Alabama went blue after McConnell’s PAC spent $11 million against Republican Mo Brooks, deep-sixing the electable candidate and leaving the party with the far more polarizing Roy Moore, who promptly lost the seat to Democrat Doug Jones.
Finally, if indeed the Senate majority was in jeopardy, it wasn’t being run that way. The Senate routinely works 2.5 days a week—allowing vulnerable Democrats up to four extra days on the campaign train.
Moreover, the much-lamented Democratic Party obstruction of Trump’s nominees was met not with procedural hardball, but with . . . generally, nothing. The Senate Republican leadership consistently has allowed Democrats to waste time on nominations, instead of pushing back with the full measure of the Senate’s rules.
Democrats’ Excesses May Have Saved the Senate Majority
Senate Democrats’ determination to light themselves on fire over the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh is largely responsible for the GOP’s two (maybe three) seat pickup.
Supreme Court confirmations are always going to drive turnout (they certainly did in 2016). But even though Republicans were enthusiastic about Kavanaugh, his nomination wasn’t necessarily going to be the base motivator it would have been two years ago.
This is, in part, because Kavanaugh’s nomination was all but secured. In the absence of the 60-vote threshold, confirming SCOTUS justices is less a game of persuasion, arm twisting, and political hardball than it is about corralling your own side, and one or two Democrats—a scenario made much easier this time around, given the number of vulnerable Democrats up in red states. All things considered, Kavanaugh’s confirmation was hardly in doubt.
That is, until Democrats doused themselves in gasoline and lit a match. The resulting chaos, the sight of Republican senators finally matching the intensity of the president, embracing an “own the libs” mentality and collectively refusing to take it anymore was the best thing that could have happened to Senate Republicans.
The only thing that was required of Senate leadership was to sit back and watch as Senators Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, Bill Cassidy, Orrin Hatch and others beat back a Democrat party that was imploding in multiple levels of literal and metaphorical lunacy. The result pulled the rug out of Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana—two GOP pickups directly related to the self-immolation of Democrats over Kavanaugh.
In poll after poll, actually seeing Republicans fight drove midterm voters to turn out. Which is good, because up until that point, the Republican Senate wasn’t known for its fighting spirit. Its biggest accomplishments to date were . . . wait for it . . . partial repeal of the Dodd-Frank banking law. It could also be argued that the decision to “move on” from Obamacare repeal—instead of pressing the issue—gave Democrats their biggest talking point against the GOP in the midterms.
So, is Fred Barnes right? Is Mitch McConnell the gift that keeps on giving?
A preponderance of evidence suggests his real skill is more in spinning events to his advantage, rather than winning them. But, hey, it’s worked well for him so far. McConnell is the longest-serving Senate majority leader in history, and he has never been challenged in his position.
But as the Senate moves forward without a Republican House, responsibility for pushing the Trump agenda and other Republican priorities rests with the upper chamber. It’s time to see if McConnell and his conference can actually deliver.
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