At the end of his remarks, McConnell did what he often does: spike the football on his political gamesmanship. McConnell has spent the better part of the last four years rubbing Democrats’ noses in how the battle for the judiciary has played out — all of it stemming from his blockades of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination and other Barack Obama court picks. So, of course, McConnell was going to spend some time doing that Sunday.
The comments, though, could also be read to point to an impending GOP loss.
“This is something to really be proud of and feel good about,” McConnell said of Barrett’s confirmation. “We made an important contribution to the future of this country. A lot of what we have done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. It won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”
What McConnell said about the staying power of Barrett’s confirmation is unquestionably true. Senate Republicans will soon have filled three vacancies to the Supreme Court in President Trump’s first term, tiling it in a clear 6-to-3 conservative direction. Given how long justices serve and how unpredictable the timing and frequency of vacancies can be, it could indeed take many years or even decades for Democrats to undo that.
But what about the other thing McConnell said — that the GOP’s accomplishments will in many other cases “be undone sooner or later by the next election.” It’s one thing to say that it would take a long time for Democrats’ to claw back; it’s another to suggest that effort “will be” commencing after “the next election.” That, after all, would require Democrats to have the power to do so, which they would get only by winning the presidency and/or the Senate. Some have cast McConnell’s comments as waving a white flag in the 2020 election.
Another read on the comments is also plausible, though. Perhaps McConnell is simply referring to the “next election” in broader terms, rather than specifically 2020. He might have meant Democrats will need to keep winning the next election — whether in 2020, 2022, 2024, etc. — to claw their way back. Politics is somewhat cyclical, which means Democrats are probably due for a return to power at some point in the near future.
McConnell’s office noted that the Senate majority leader has often made a similar point — that whatever the makeup of Washington in the near future, the more than 200 judicial nominees confirmed under Trump will be his lasting legacy.
When McConnell signaled in May 2019 that he would fill a Supreme Court vacancy if it arose in 2020, for instance, he said: “You want to have a long, lasting positive impact on the country. Everything else changes. … What can’t be undone is a lifetime appointment to a young man or woman who believes in the quaint notion that the job of a judge is to follow the law.”
But McConnell’s choice of words is difficult to completely divorce from the significant deficit Trump now faces. And it’s arguably not the only sign that McConnell might believe his party is in line for a loss, whether in the presidential race and/or in the Senate (which is more of an open question).
He has stood strongly against the White House’s proposals for a big coronavirus relief bill, for instance, despite the White House’s apparent anxiety to get a deal done before the election. This might reflect legitimate concerns in his conference about the size of the relief package, but you would think Senate Republicans might try harder to do what they could to salvage the presidency — if they believed it was salvageable.
McConnell has also distanced himself somewhat from the coronavirus response that has so dogged the White House. He said recently, for example, that he has declined to visit the White House because “my impression was that their approach to how to handle this is different from mine and what I suggested that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”
McConnell is an exceedingly strategic politician, almost always thinking multiple steps ahead and choosing his words carefully. Maybe his Sunday comments were just a wayward choice of phrasing. Either way, McConnell’s comments sound a lot like those of a man who would like to help pre-write the post-mortems of a GOP loss before the election is over.