Now we know why: so that he and other Senate Republicans would have a procedural excuse to acquit. In his Senate speech, McConnell suggested that Trump could still face accountability in the criminal and civil justice systems, but McConnell was derelict in his own duty to hold Trump to account. His own wife resigned from the Cabinet to protest Trump’s role in inciting the Jan. 6 attack, but McConnell still refused to convict.
Watching this dazzling display of parliamentary maneuvering, I don’t know whether to be repulsed at Machiavellian Mitch’s shamelessness or to applaud his hardball political skills. He was trying to placate his own caucus — which might have overthrown him if he had voted to convict — while at the same time trying to please more moderate Republican voters and donors whose support Republicans will need to recapture the Senate in 2022. And no doubt he was also trying to save his own reputation from the judgment of history, which will not be kind to Trump and his enablers.
But like so many of McConnell’s maneuvers, this one strikes me as too clever by half. You can’t triangulate between the rule of law and the rule of the mob. And you can’t shed Trump’s influence over the Republican Party if you’re not willing to hold him to account for even the most “unconscionable behavior” imaginable. By trying to be all things to all people, Machiavellian Mitch satisfies no one. Leader McConnell does not provide any moral leadership.
A 36-year veteran of the Senate, McConnell is the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history — and the wiliest Senate leader of either party since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1950s. But all of that deft political maneuvering appears to be devoid of any larger concern for the country’s well-being. As Senate majority leader, Johnson worked with the Eisenhower administration on civil rights legislation, the national highway bill, foreign policy and other important issues. Later, as president, he pushed through landmark civil rights legislation even though he knew it would be a death knell for the Democratic Party in the South.
What has McConnell done with his power? He has pushed through tax cuts that sent the deficit skyrocketing while rewarding his wealthy donors, and he has confirmed countless conservative judges to please socially conservative voters. His most notable — and most outrageous — achievement was refusing to schedule a vote for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee during the election year of 2016 while confirming Trump’s nominee just days before the 2020 election. McConnell’s only real passion seems to be for removing limits on campaign cash — which is the chief source of power for this notoriously uncharismatic politician.
Last year, Jane Mayer published a long account of McConnell’s career in the New Yorker. She kept asking those who know him best what he believes in. “Finally,” she wrote, “someone who knows him very well told me, ‘Give up. You can look and look for something more in him, but it isn’t there. I wish I could tell you that there is some secret thing that he really believes in, but he doesn’t.’”
McConnell, in short, is a perpetual power machine. He knows everything about power save what it should be used for. In 2010, when asked about his goals, he said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Because he is so ruthless and unprincipled, Machiavellian Mitch should not be allowed to wield the mighty cudgel of the filibuster to stop the Biden administration from getting anything done on important issues such as expanding health coverage, addressing global warming, securing voting rights, strengthening gun controls and fixing a broken immigration system.
I have been ambivalent about eliminating the supermajority requirement for fear that it could empower extremism. But I have been convinced by Adam Jentleson’s important new book “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy” that requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation is neither historically grounded nor politically prudent. Rather than encouraging compromise, the filibuster gives a skilled tactician such as McConnell the ability to simply paralyze the Senate. That is power that should not be vouchsafed to this nihilistic Machiavellian.