Few people in America rode into 2017 higher than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). After leading Republicans to the Senate majority in 2014 and blocking President Barack Obama from filling the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, McConnell helped the GOP hold the Senate last fall to deliver the first unified Republican control of government in a decade. Just six months later, though, McConnell is staring at a dramatic reversal of fortunes, facing a full-blown rebellion among the Republican senators he leads and serious doubts about his leadership ability.
But that shift is not as abrupt as it may seem, since McConnell sowed the seeds of the discord he now faces as he forged his path to power.
If pride goeth before the fall, a healthy dose of hubris preceded McConnell’s setback. For a man who titled his memoir “The Long Game,” McConnell’s decision to dive into health care as the Senate’s first major order of business remains a head-scratcher. Health care comprises one-sixth of the U.S. economy and affects most Americans in some form or another. Democrats’ effort to pass the Affordable Care Act stretched from the spring of 2009, past Christmas and into early 2010, spanning dozens of hearings and countless hours of public debate. President Trump was pilloried for saying “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” but McConnell made the same mistake.
To be sure, Trump promised to repeal Obamacare quickly, and there are procedural reasons why repealing health care first would make the GOP’s next ambition, a major rewrite of the tax code, easier. But the Senate leader is not captive to the president’s campaign promises, and treating an issue of health care’s magnitude as a quick errand to be dispatched on the way to tax reform is pure hubris — the exact strain of Master of the Universe policymaking arrogance for which Republicans often criticize Democrats.
Moreover, McConnell missed a major opportunity to build on Republicans’ electoral momentum and exacerbate Democrats’ divisions. If McConnell had started with a more reasonable goal with bipartisan potential, like boosting spending on infrastructure projects, he would have had a solid chance of picking off Democratic senators, logging an early achievement, wreaking havoc on Democrats and building a far more positive environment for themselves than the morass they currently face. Instead, Democratic leaders have used to recent fights to unify the rank and file and deepen their ties to the progressive resistance, while Republicans have careened into a state of open civil war, with Trump repeatedly bashing fellow Republicans on Twitter and even threatening Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to his face, on national television.
The Senate leader is supposed to keep his eye on the big picture. Even though the House moved quickly to pass its own repeal bill, McConnell was under no obligation to act if he thought it was not in the best interest of his conference.
Every leader has their ups and downs, but part of what’s shocking — especially relatively early in this new administration — is that the Republicans who have broken from McConnell publicly are violating the cardinal rule of criticizing or opposing the leader, which is: no surprises. In the 2014 midterms, Republicans’ Senate campaign mantra was “Fire Harry Reid.” Many Democrats in red states felt compelled to criticize him to stake out their independence — but they did so by picking relatively benign issues like amendment strategy, and above all else he was never surprised. But not only did numerous Republicans reject McConnell’s pleas to “keep their powder dry” and refrain from publicly opposing the bill, at least one of the pivotal “no” votes blindsided the leader, with Sen. Mike Lee’s (Utah) office stating that he did not tell McConnell before he announced his opposition.
The tone of his fellow Republicans’ criticism is severe, with his colleagues questioning his strategy, calling his honesty into question and accusing him of double-dealing. Republicans from across the spectrum have criticized McConnell’s strategy and the closed process, from Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) to Lee, with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) calling for a return to “regular order” — an implicit jab at McConnell’s repeated promises not to run things this way if Republicans regained the majority. In the intimate confines of the Senate, the most critical asset a leader has is his word. In this close-knit environment, verbal commitments are the iron beams girding the legislative process. And no commitments mean more than those given by a leader. So it is striking to see a Republican senator like Ron Johnson (Wis.), not generally considered a gadfly, accuse McConnell of a “significant breach of trust” and tell a reporter that he sought out other Republicans to confirm that McConnell was telling different senators different things.
The respect McConnell enjoys is based almost entirely on delivering political victories — but even here, he may have depleted his capital by delivering those victories at the expense of the Senate as an institution, ratcheting down the power of committees and individual senators. McConnell has taken a torch to the Senate’s role as a deliberative, thoughtful body in many ways over the years, from breaking all previous records on the number of filibusters waged to denying Judge Merrick Garland so much as a hearing to going nuclear at the drop of a hat to confirm Justice Neil M. Gorsuch (Reid went nuclear too, but only as a last resort after years spent trying to negotiate alternative solutions. McConnell pulled the trigger at the drop of a hat.) But his original sin was recasting the fundamentally centrist legislation that was Obamacare as a socialist government takeover, scorching the Earth that should have provided fertile ground for public debate. Whether it leans to the right or left, most centrist health reform policy looks substantially like Obamacare, which was based on the reform implemented by then-Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. But the rhetoric McConnell and his allies used against it left Republicans with no room to maneuver when it became their turn to craft health-care policy. For example, a good-faith effort like the legislation proposed by Collins and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) earlier this year was considered a non-starter and did not factor into the repeal debate because it too closely resembled Obamacare.
McConnell’s centralization of power was also evident in the drafting process, where he bypassed all committees, failed to hold a single hearing and drafted the bill the Senate will vote on this week in his leadership suite with a handful of his own aides.
For years, McConnell’s fellow Republicans were willing to tolerate, even embrace, McConnell’s tactics as long as McConnell delivered political victories and amassed political power. But now that Republicans have power, they’re facing the reality that the way McConnell amassed it has hamstrung their ability to get things done.
One possible prism for refining your view of McConnell is the 2016 election — the crown jewel of his political victories. Held to a certain light, McConnell is a political genius who saw Trump’s ability to win when no one else did, and defied all predictions and laws of political physics. Held to another, McConnell woke up on Election Day expecting Trump to lose, and he became the beneficiary of the biggest windfall of political luck in modern times. The latter explanation aligns with the consensus on McConnell in Reid’s office when I worked there: that he is a master tactician but a poor strategist. And while you can spend hours turning the prism to this or that angle, a simple way to resolve the question may be to rely on McConnell’s own words from December: