Mitch McConnell never particularly took offense when his opponents branded him America’s No. 1 obstructionist, the Darth Vader of Capitol Hill. Call him dark, call him evil, he embraced it all, even posting the most biting cartoons on his office wall.
He was happy to let others handle the oratory and the inspiration and the fleshing out of a governing philosophy. Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr., the 75-year-old senior senator from Kentucky, would focus on the winning part.
Based on the electoral math alone, this should be the Senate majority leader’s moment, the veteran lawmaker finally in command with an inexperienced president and a young House speaker as his partners in a united Republican government.
Despite this week’s embarrassing decision to slam the brakes on the replacement of Obamacare — which President Trump promised would happen “immediately” after he took office — McConnell may yet push through some version of the Senate’s health-care plan. But even if he does, it’s clear that the man who titled his autobiography “The Long Game” faces an extended period of ideological division within his party, deeply damaged relations with the Democrats, and an uncertain bond with an impatient and impetuous president.
Fueled by a lifelong quest for tactical advantage rather than by any enduring ideological flame, McConnell had long hoped for this chance, finally, well into his fourth decade in the Senate, to make big things happen, just like his role model, Mike Mansfield, the 1960s and ’70s leader who presided over a generation of Democratic policy initiatives that reshaped the nation.
But now, after many years of goal-line stands, McConnell is under pressure to put some points on the board on big-ticket issues such as health, tax reform and infrastructure. Whether he can do that will depend on his ability to pivot from blocking to building.
For decades, McConnell has been celebrated (and bashed) as an obstructionist, a leader who was effective at derailing the other side’s initiatives, without much of a track record in achieving big things for his own team.
“Maybe we should call him Senator Stonewall McConnell,” one of his home state mayors said in 2013. She was a Democrat, but she meant it as a compliment.
Now, however, McConnell must find his way to majorities in a Senate where his party holds a two-seat advantage and where Democrats have pledged to at least match McConnell’s mastery of the art of paralysis.
“He has a really, really difficult challenge,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich. “It’s a very narrow majority and it’s divided within itself.”
But Gingrich, who led his chamber of Congress in the 1990s with a high-octane mix of soaring rhetoric, constant media presence and persistent evangelism for his conservative philosophy, says McConnell may yet tote up some wins because he is a different kind of political leader.
“Mitch is like a really good engineer, trying to think through every day, ‘How do I get the machine operating?’ ” Gingrich said. “He’s got senators who do television better. He’s got guys who do the great oratory. The tools that make Mitch effective are steely determination, enormous willpower and endless patience. He wants to be known as the guy who gets things done.”
McConnell’s first big challenge of the Trump presidency produced a win, but it wasn’t pretty.
By winning the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court this spring, McConnell proved he could wield his divided Republican caucus as a battering ram. But to win with only Republican support, McConnell decided he had to go nuclear, reversing generations of tradition by lowering the required number of votes to approve the judge’s nomination from 60 to 51. In 2010, when McConnell was in the minority, he called the prospect of that same fundamental change in how the Senate does business “one of the most brazen single-party power grabs in legislative history.”
“For a long time, McConnell had convinced a lot of Democrats that he was at bottom a defender of the institution, someone you could at some level do business with,” said Adam Jentleson, who was deputy chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) “He’s been revealed as someone who’s really about accruing power for himself.”
On the surface, McConnell has always eschewed the trappings of power. He does his own laundry. He mainly leaves the social circuit to his flashier colleagues. His dour manner and downturned mouth make him a caricature of the old-school, backroom lawmaker.
But McConnell loves to be underestimated. He doesn’t talk much about himself — he declined to be interviewed for this article — but he knows what got him where he is today. As a toddler, he began a two-year battle against polio. His mother took him to Warm Springs, Ga., where Franklin D. Roosevelt fought the same disease. There, McConnell underwent four 45-minute physical therapy sessions a day.
“I’ve always felt that it had a big impact on me in terms of focus, discipline, and if you stick to it even under adverse circumstances, you may succeed,” McConnell told The Washington Post in 2011. He has some difficulty going down stairs, observers say, but he recovered well enough to become a successful high school baseball player.
The effort to replace the Affordable Care Act presents McConnell with abundantly adverse circumstances, a challenge unlike any he has faced. McConnell is trying to bull through a divisive and unpopular piece of legislation that would make sweeping changes to domestic policy with no cross-party support and a caucus better accustomed to saying no than yes.
When Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who is openly skeptical of the GOP health plan, was asked whether McConnell mishandled the drive toward a vote, she said: “He did what he thought was best. It isn’t the way I would have done it. But, you know, he did his best.”
McConnell built his majority by fielding candidates who waged war against Barack Obama to devastating effect. Getting many of those same lawmakers to coalesce around a far-reaching rewrite of existing law has been agonizing.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who arrived in the Senate in 2015, sees parallels between McConnell’s predicament and what he experienced as only the second Republican speaker of his state’s House in a century. “Our conference naturally had this muscle memory of you get up and you stop things from happening,” he explained. “You didn’t have a great expectation that you were going to be moving anything.”
During Obama’s presidency, McConnell often marshaled his rank and file to resist the president’s agenda. But when necessary, he could and did strike last-minute, bipartisan deals, such as the secret negotiations with then-Vice President Joe Biden that extended the George W. Bush-era tax cuts in 2010 and the bailout deal for the financial services industry that he cut with Reid after the economic collapse in 2008.
Contrary to McConnell’s popular image, Gingrich argues that the majority leader’s ultimate aim is to return the Senate to the kind of bipartisanship that once made it the place where overheated political passions cooled off. “It’s not what some people think, but he told me that what he wants most is to recreate a bipartisan institution,” Gingrich said.
That would involve returning to once-routine practices such as seeking votes from members of both parties and vetting bills in open committee hearings rather than crafting them, as McConnell did with the health-care bill, in secret sessions for Republicans only.
That legislative idyll is unlikely to return anytime soon. McConnell’s allies say that’s because the Democrats have taken on the obstructionist role that Republicans played in the Obama years. Democrats, naturally, reverse the blame.
McConnell took pride that for some years he sat at the desk once used by Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser of the 19th century. But throughout his career, McConnell has persuaded many Republicans and Democrats alike that he is fiercely partisan.
In 1984, in his first race for Senate, McConnell was badly trailing the incumbent Democrat until Roger Ailes, the future architect of Fox News but then a Republican campaign consultant, made McConnell a TV ad that showed a pack of barking bloodhounds hunting for the Democrat, Walter Huddleston, because he’d missed so many votes in Washington. McConnell won the election and a reputation for rough tactics.
In an era when bipartisanship has become a gutter slur for many voters, McConnell for a long time had it both ways: He became a defender of tradition who nonetheless wouldn’t hesitate to do what it takes to win.
Throughout the Obama years, he expressed contempt for Democrats who he said were breaking with Senate tradition by acting unilaterally. Then, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died early last year, McConnell blocked Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to take Scalia’s place. Republicans saw that ultimate obstruction as a historic and vital maneuver that not only kept a conservative majority on the court but built momentum to hold the Senate majority and win the presidency. McConnell called it “one of the happiest nights of my Senate career.”
To Democrats, however, the blockade “showed the lengths he was willing to go to put aside any notions of comity, norms and traditions,” Jentleson said. “Garland was McConnell saying, ‘Look, if I am the leader when Obama gets a strong majority on the court, and I lose the Senate majority after two years, I’m in a very precarious position.’ Blocking Garland was McConnell’s insurance against a challenge from the right. And for Democrats, Garland was a turning point.”
McConnell has never been encumbered by the stereotypical politician’s passion to be loved. He calls himself a master of the unexpressed thought — in sharp contrast, he notes, to the current tenant in the White House.
When he does speak, he is succinct and blunt. Will Trump get Mexico to pay for a new border wall? “Uh, no,” McConnell said earlier this year. Are Republicans too focused on slamming the brakes on anything Democrats try to do? “I am a proud guardian of gridlock,” McConnell said during the Clinton presidency. Did the Senate’s Republican leader have any grand initiatives planned for the Obama years? “The single most important thing we want to achieve,” McConnell said in 2010, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Halfway through his sixth term in the Senate, McConnell is the rare senator who says he never had presidential aspirations — and means it. “I’m the leader of the Senate Republicans,” he said a few years ago. “I don’t aspire to be the leader of the party.”
McConnell’s allies say his practical approach and dry wit may seem like a throwback to days when more of Washington’s business was done in smoke-filled, closed-door rooms, where deals did get done. But some Democrats and Republicans alike say McConnell has undermined his power by helping to build the populist fervor that led to Trump’s victory.
“By opposing Obama at every turn, no matter what, you are ginning up an anti-government, anti-elite kind of feeling,” said Al Cross, a University of Kentucky professor and political writer who has watched McConnell closely for decades. “He saw Obama as a huge existential threat: If Obama got a lot done on a bipartisan basis, like Lyndon Johnson or FDR did, he’d leave [Republicans] as a permanent minority. He wasn’t going to let that happen.”
Now, with Trump and Republicans in Congress dependent on voters who want swift and dramatic change, McConnell must manage expectations. “He’s not buffeted by short-term controversies,” Cross said. “He doesn’t get too far out in front on issues or policy. Politics is business to him.”
He calls himself a conservative but was never driven primarily by ideology. He was for abortion before he was against it. He pushed for disclosure of all campaign donations, then became a leader of the drive to allow unlimited, undisclosed spending. He was an early and vocal skeptic about the tea party movement and worked hard to recruit Senate candidates who were more moderate than him. But when he faced a tea-party-inspired primary opponent in 2014, McConnell tacked to more populist rhetoric.
Now, the expert tactician is in an unfamiliar spot. McConnell wanted a vote on health care before the July 4 recess, a deadline he will miss. GOP senators, many of whom are less than excited about their bill, are heading home, expecting to face immense blowback from voters.
McConnell has effectively become the chief salesman for a product that isn’t selling. His margin for error remains razor-thin.
But there is no sign of panic. McConnell has never been captive to a president’s initiatives, not even to a Republican president. In 2007, McConnell stood with President George W. Bush in support of his last major initiative, an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy that would have given illegal immigrants legal status and repositioned the Republican Party. But McConnell, facing reelection the following year, read the situation and made his move. Two weeks after standing with the president, McConnell said the people of Kentucky opposed the bill. He voted against it and it died.