Basking in the glow of the Senate’s hard-fought confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, President Trump decided to share a portion of his own grandeur with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by dubbing him the “greatest leader in history.” It’s a claim that would certainly be disputed by many historians, who would tip the scales in favor of past majority leaders such as Lyndon B. Johnson, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, George Mitchell and Harry M. Reid, who achieved far more impressive legislative victories.
But greatness ought to be judged by the tactical skills of majority leaders as well as how many objectives they achieve. By either standard, McConnell is among the most effective of Senate leaders. He has resolutely pursued what he calls the “long game,” angling to have influence decades after he has left office. And his moves have largely achieved their objectives. While many on the left view McConnell’s legacy as the destruction of the Senate and its norms, they should, however grudgingly, acknowledge his skills.
The position of majority leader dates back slightly more than a century. The first to hold the title was John Worth Kern of Indiana, whose accomplishments include the creation of the Federal Reserve Act, enactment of the federal income tax and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act.
Kern has a decent claim to being not only the first majority leader, but also the greatest. In addition to helping enact seminal progressive legislation, he also fashioned the procedure for terminating debate and subjecting a filibuster to a vote of cloture during the 1917 battle over arming U.S. merchant vessels against German submarine attacks.
Debates over the greatest majority leaders also inevitably bring up Johnson, who became leader in 1955. At the time, it was seen as a risky position: Johnson’s two predecessors as Democratic leader lost their reelection bids. That must have weighed on Johnson, whose grip on his Senate seat in Texas was not especially strong at the time. Plus, he would be going up against a popular president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to protect the Democrats’ New Deal and Fair Deal programs.
Strength of personality and vigorous — even coercive — tactics characterized Johnson’s years as majority leader. He succeeded in establishing a good working relationship with Eisenhower, and the president often turned to Johnson rather than to Minority Leader William Knowland to advance his legislative program. He made allies of liberals such as Hubert Humphrey and Mike Mansfield, despite significant political differences. Mansfield succeeded him as majority leader after Johnson became vice president in 1961, and even proposed that Johnson retain a leadership position in the Senate. The proposal met with opposition and was dropped.
For the first three years of his leadership, Johnson’s efforts were hampered by an anemic Democratic majority. He also had to contend with a solid phalanx of deeply conservative Southern segregationists in his own party who controlled major Senate committees. They included, among others, Richard B. Russell on Armed Services, John R. McClellan of Arkansas on Appropriations and James O. Eastland of Mississippi on Judiciary.
Johnson’s effort to enact a civil rights bill, for example, was stymied by Southern Democrats, notably Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, whose epic 24-hour filibuster nearly derailed what was an essentially toothless voting rights bill in 1957. But its passage gave Johnson bragging rights on an issue dear to liberals in the party. And it meant more than just bragging rights: Johnson had ambitions beyond the Senate, and needed to enact legislation that would make him acceptable to the broader Democratic Party that was suspicious of his Southern roots.
After the 1958 election delivered more Northern Democrats to Johnson’s caucus, he found himself at odds with their liberal agendas, and they resented his heavy-handed treatment. This limited Johnson’s ability to rack up major achievements. If major legislative accomplishment is a criterion for bestowing the title of “great” on a majority leader, Johnson’s claim is far weaker than most think.
Mike Mansfield’s leadership could not have presented a greater contrast from Johnson’s muscular, even overbearing, style. Yet it was he who partnered with Republican leader Everett M. Dirksen to enact the great Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If Johnson was a trail boss, Mansfield was more like a small-town pastor. For Democratic senators, that was a relief. Mansfield’s deliberate decision to give individual senators the latitude they needed to build their own reputations made him a popular leader, and his hands-off approach laid the groundwork for the creation of the modern Senate.
Subsequent leaders such as Robert Byrd, Howard Baker and George Mitchell all skillfully steered seminal legislation to passage, in many cases despite divided government.
This shapes the impression that these leaders achieved more than McConnell and were better statesmen. But this analysis misses McConnell’s brilliant tactical skills. When we focus on that metric, McConnell must certainly be placed among the pantheon of most effective congressional leaders. While it rubbed Democrats the wrong way, his denial of Republican votes for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stripped those bills of bipartisan legitimacy. More recently, his strategic “long game” approach has been vividly on display through two Supreme Court nominations, especially that of Kavanaugh.
Democrats deride McConnell’s claim to greatness because they see his tactical and strategic skills as obstructionism masquerading behind a facade of dubious “principles.” To them, McConnell’s toxic blend is most evident in his argument against taking up the nomination of Merrick Garland, citing debatable, if not downright contrived, history concerning the nomination of Supreme Court candidates in the last year of a presidency. Yet this gambit encapsulates McConnell’s ruthless brilliance.
If we define a majority leader’s greatness as the ability to achieve political objectives — such as capturing the majority in 2014 and turning a potential long-term liberal majority on the court into a durable conservative majority — McConnell has a strong claim, even though for some it may give off a whiff of sulfur.
In his role as the president’s field marshal in the Senate, McConnell often seems to carry out his tasks dutifully rather than cheerfully. He is known to consider Trump to be ignorant of the way the Senate operates, and although he turned the screws to get Kavanaugh nominated, he advised Trump against naming him because of the judge’s lengthy paper trail.
In terms of achieving his objectives, McConnell would certainly be in the upper tier of majority leaders right now. But his greatest test will be ahead of him if the Democrats capture the House on Nov. 6. Even with an expanded Senate majority, he may find himself occupied more with thwarting Democratic House bills than pushing GOP legislation to the goal line. And if history is any guide, he could find himself the victim of the old White House game of triangulation, left out in the cold as Trump tries to make deals — not with a GOP that has regularly done his bidding, but with the Democrats. Because if there’s one thing Trump respects, it’s power — something the majority leader should understand well.