One possible interpretation is that McConnell, as leader of the Republican minority, has placed his focus squarely on not working with Democrats to enact Biden’s agenda. I write about politics for a living, so if you can’t see how I got from A to B on that, you’ll simply have to defer to my sage analysis. But, perhaps, you can see how I derived that interpretation.
McConnell’s reputation has never been that he’s a willing partner with the political opposition. Instead, his legacy will largely be defined on how he’s used his power both in the majority and the minority to advance Republican priorities at whatever cost. That’s true nowhere more than the judiciary, where McConnell’s efforts to stymie appointments during the Obama administration gave Donald Trump a lot of holes to fill.
Then there was the death of Antonin Scalia. Obama nominated Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia after his death in February 2016 but McConnell, then majority leader, simply declined to let the Senate consider the nomination. When Trump came to office, he nominated Neal Gorsuch to replace Scalia and McConnell moved quickly toward confirmation.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died shortly before the 2020 election, McConnell’s argument against replacing Scalia — that the voters should decide whom they want to be president before the president nominates a justice — was thrown out the window with a wink. Trump got another justice, thanks to McConnell.
In January, McConnell’s Republicans lost the majority and, with it, the ability to direct judicial confirmations. But asked on Monday what playbook he would apply were a Supreme Court vacancy to open up in 2023 if Republicans retook the Senate, McConnell’s answer was, as always “probably the one that gives the right more power.”
It would be “highly unlikely” that a Republican-controlled Senate would consider a Biden appointment in 2024, McConnell assured conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, citing the argument he and his allies invented last year that when the Senate and presidency were under the control of different parties this was an important standard to uphold. Hewitt pushed McConnell a bit on this: Would that hold even 18 months out from an election — that is, for most of the second half of a president’s term?
“We’d have to wait and see what happens,” McConnell replied.
Again, expert political observers might suggest that this indicates a general reticence from McConnell to work with his political opponents.
Polling has repeatedly shown Republicans are less supportive of compromise at the moment than are Democrats. In December, at a particularly fraught moment for American politics, two-thirds of Americans said compromise was more important than standing on principle for elected officials in a NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll. But that included three-quarters of Democrats and only a bare majority of Republicans.
Last month, CNN asked specifically about the need for Congress and the president to compromise. About 7-in-10 respondents said congressional Democrats, congressional Republicans and Biden should all prioritize working across the aisle. But Republicans were more likely to say that bipartisanship was a “bad thing” than were Democrats and three-quarters were pessimistic that bipartisanship could be achieved.
It’s tricky to extract views of bipartisanship from the political moment. One might assume, for example, that having control of both chambers of Congress and the White House might change the demand for compromise. Polling from Monmouth University conducted in 2019 and in February does show a change in views of compromise — but perhaps not the one you would expect.
In October 2019, about as many respondents overall said elected officials not willing to stand up for their principles was about as important a problem as officials not being willing to compromise. Those overall numbers remained the same in February, but the percentage of Democrats pointing to the need to compromise has spiked as the percentage of Republicans have become more likely to insist on standing on principle.
Lots of ways to interpret this! But at the moment this question, too, comes down to what McConnell wants. After all, Democrats have the votes in the House to pass bills and have the votes in the Senate to win a majority — except that the Senate increasingly demands a 60-vote margin for passage thanks to filibuster rules that Republicans and several key Democrats are loath to change. Without Republicans compromising with Democrats and supporting joint proposals, nothing passes the Senate, meaning nothing becomes law. And McConnell is making sure that his caucus (or at least 10 members of his caucus) don’t make those compromises.
So despite Democrats having power, they want compromise from Republicans. And despite Republicans being out of power, standing on principle — in opposition to the left — is important.
This is all taking place in the context of a heightened political toxicity. Most Republicans see Democrats not as political opponents but as enemies, which would certainly seem to color how likely the right might be to work with the left. And you have the former president out there still prioritizing partisan fights over policy, in keeping with his thorough understanding of the former and indifference to the latter. There are not only the motivations of power dynamics pushing McConnell but also an environment in which compromise seems more difficult than usual anyway.
It’s also the case that McConnell learned an important lesson from the past five years. In 2016, he paid no significant price for blocking Scalia’s replacement. Republicans lost the Senate in 2020 after he acted quickly to replace Ginsburg, but there’s little reason to think that his party lost the Senate because of that hypocrisy. In fact, his approach to power has been rewarded by several Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) insisting Republicans have a chance to help shape policy.
Of course McConnell would block Biden from appointing a new justice in 2023. McConnell has already said that his goal is to block everything Biden wants anyway. And he’s well aware that he has the power to do so.