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Mitch McConnell may have one last trick up his sleeve

Don't count him out just yet. Credit: Getty

February 29, 2024 - 10:00am

The 1984 Reagan landslide first carried Mitch McConnell into the United States Senate. After declaring that he would step down as Republican leader later this year, McConnell recounted how he and Elaine Chao married on Reagan’s birthday, saying “Reagan meant a lot to us”.

Today, Donald Trump means far more to many of McConnell’s Republican colleagues than Reagan, and the Senate Republican leader’s withdrawal is part of a bigger power struggle within the GOP.

It’s tempting to view McConnell’s exit as a sign of ideological succession: the Reaganite conservatives are out, and populists are now in charge. But the Senate Republican leader’s recent record complicates that narrative. He proved instrumental in passing 2021’s massive infrastructure bill as well as the CHIPS Act on semiconductors — one of the more robust efforts at industrial policy in recent decades, even if some think these measures do not go far enough. These are not the moves of a conventional fiscal hawk.

Nevertheless, many of the more populist-aligned senators pushed for his ouster and used the failed Senate border bill as a chance to redouble their criticisms. As the 2024 elections come into view, McConnell has faced greater political pressures from within the Senate GOP and from allies of Donald Trump. He may have calculated that announcing a planned withdrawal from the leadership could circumvent that pressure campaign and give him more room to manoeuvre. McConnell’s support for further Ukraine funding is perhaps his foes’ favourite target, but they may also believe that his business-friendly politics prevent Senate Republicans from uniting around a more populist, pro-worker agenda.

However, those who blame McConnell for the congressional GOP’s stalemate might also look across the Capitol to the House. Republicans there are paralysed not by nostalgic Reaganites but instead by the intramural hand-to-hand combat caused by the ousting of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. In a growing wave, members of the Republican old guard as well as rising stars are leaving Congress — fed up with the chaos and doubting whether Republicans will be able to move a significant legislative agenda even if they do win a majority. 

Stepping down from his leadership position could also conceivably give McConnell more strategic leverage if Trump becomes president again. As Senate Republican leader, McConnell is to some extent responsible to his caucus and hemmed in by them. As a single senator, he could become more of a free agent. If Republicans do recapture the Senate in 2024, they may only do so with the slimmest majority. In Trump’s first two years in office, narrow Republican control gave an outsized influence to John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski, just as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were the essential legislative fulcrums of the early Biden years.

Wearing a tight-lipped smile, McConnell keeps his cards close to his vest — but there’s little doubt that this wily Senate tactician is planning his next move in a political battlefield scarred with cannonballs and crushed careers.


Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

Mitch McConnell on fiscal restraint:

“I view it as all interconnected,” he said during the interview. “If you look at the Ukraine assistance, let’s – let’s talk about where the money is really going. A significant portion of it’s being spent in the United States in 38 different states, replacing the weapons that we sent to Ukraine with more modern weapons. So we’re rebuilding our industrial base,” he said.

He added: “No Americans are getting killed in Ukraine. We’re rebuilding our industrial base. The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that. I think it’s wonderful that they’re defending themselves.”

This is pretty much everything the MAGAs oppose… to the extent their ideology can be considered in any way consistent.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Mitch McConnell is part of the crew that has amassed a massive national debt. Him waxing on about fiscal restraint is a bit like Hamas claiming to represent a peaceful religion.
Also, the money “we’re” spending is not his or anyone else’s in Congress. It’s money that should be used for domestic priorities. I hear the border has become an area of concern.

Eric Miene
Eric Miene
4 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

If you were paying attention, a massive bill that would have funded Ukraine, Israel, *and* the southern border got killed because Donald Trump wants the border to remain an issue for him to run on. The idea that we need to choose between the border and our interests on the global stage is a nonsense MAGA talking point pushed by Republicans who have no grasp of what’s happening in the world, and parroted by Republicans who know better yet are afraid of Trump’s cult-like hold on the majority of Republicans and don’t want to give Joe Biden a political victory.

To repeat, for anyone who actually cares about the border, Donald Trump made phone calls to Republican Congresspersons and Senators to kill the bill and publicly admitted he didn’t want to give Joe Biden a victory. He is *actively sustaining a problem* the American right claims to care about in order to benefit himself politically.

Republicans now have nobody to blame for the border but their own pathetic, invertebrate, supine leadership. And the amoral sociopath to whom they’ve sold their souls.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
4 months ago
Reply to  Eric Miene

The immigration bill had huge problems most particularly the daily allowance of illegals- that’s a big thing. If the Democrats were really serious about obtaining a deal they should have agreed to the immigration bill the Republicans crafted last Spring. But of course, the Progressives wouldn’t allow it…

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
4 months ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Don’t get sucked into the approved narrative that we even need new immigration laws! We already have reams of them, which are being ignored.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
4 months ago
Reply to  Eric Miene

All leftist talking points from you too. We already have an abundance of immigration laws to protect against the invasion that is currently happening. But they are being completely ignored by this administration so they can obfuscate the subject and wax on about new laws (filled with pork) that are “desperately” needed. If it weren’t for those terrible, deplorable MAGA folks, all the world’s major issues (which magically proliferated in just the last 3 years) would simply go away.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

That is because the MAGAs want to fight “woke” people rather than tyrannical dictators.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago

 These are not the moves of a conventional fiscal hawk. –> When one of the titular leaders of the allegedly conservative party refuses to govern in a conservative fashion, voters have this habit of noticing. McConnel is indicative of the type of Republican who loves the office, the power, and all the trappings, but not the icky work of actually governing. Dems, on the other hand, have no problem with pushing their agenda, no matter who gets hurt.
McConnell served a purpose re: the Supreme Court, and lest anyone forget, he took advantage of a rule championed by the previous Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to do away with filibusters on judicial nominations. Harry never considered that what was good for him would also be good for the other side.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
4 months ago

It’s fascinating that NO ONE in the media is talking about the Senator’s age (82), which he himself acknowledges is a main reason for his stepping down as minority leader. His quote was “Father time always wins.” Compare that with Biden, who is a mere 81 and is now a more embarrassing gaffe machine due to his age. But make no mention of it!

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

The article seems to proceed on the basis that McConnell will live to be about 120, and will continue to serve until then.

0 0
0 0
4 months ago

Modern politics attracts parasites, usually mediocrities who couldn’t or wouldn’t make anything of themselves in the private sector, those people often being middling lawyers. The people who get attracted to the politics as a career often suffer from mommy or daddy issues, and as a result have deep insecurities, and having power over other people how they compensate. Despite having money and power in their position, they often don’t get better in office, it was a tendency to offer for them to get worse the longer they’re in, because their feelings of an adequacy always reassert themselves in the ends and they always have to double down in order to deal with them.
People of integrity, character, ability tend to stay in the private sector. The reason being that they can be awarded both powered and influence, make great money and have awesome, and deal with much less nonsense. But at the same time they’re expected to perform up to a certain objective standard and have to be accountable to and subordinate to other people. Which are things politicians both hate and fear, because they don’t like being held accountable or answerable to other people because they might lose everything, be embarrassed by they’re inadequacies being exposed, and may actually have to work hard and honest for a living. This is the reason why politics has such low quality people in it. Not to say that there’s bad behavior in the private sector, but it’s much harder to get away with due to conditions and safeguards in place. When comes Western politics, there are few if any real real heroes, political contest that happened or just nothing more than corrupt cliques of self interested people fighting with each other out of self-interest, whatever cause or it should be fight for just merely means to an end. McConnell and others are just two sides of the same coin. What we need to do is eliminate politics as a profession, when the ways we can do this it’s not just through deregulation, but decentralization as well. Make the position less attractive to people who would have use as a means of which they can make corrupt deals with powerful interests. Term limits would certainly help as well mandatory retirement ages, and forbidden from taking part in stock markets would also do that. I also think we should increase the age requirements for office, that way it would make it much more difficult for a young person to have a long career in politics.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  0 0

The suggestion of mandatory retirement ages is interesting, but I doubt it is a problem many countries have. The US has always had a reasonable number of very old politicians (I think Strom Thurmond served until he was aged 100), but here in Australia, there are very few in their 70s, never mind 80s.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 months ago

I understand that the McConnell is regarded as an old guard Republican and an ally of the Romney/Cheney wing, a group engaged in the most stunning and arrogant act of political self-immolation I have ever personally witnessed (even historical comparisons are few). I further get that this writer is probably writing from a populist ‘what’s this old schemer planning’ perspective but I just don’t see it that way. Perhaps it’s because I’m from Kentucky so have some knowledge of the man before he became a major leadership figure during the second Bush’s presidency. When Mitch was first elected in 1984 though, he was not an ‘old guard’ Republican, nor likely to ever become one. One could hardly be an old guard Republican anywhere south of the Ohio river and east of the Mississippi because there was no Republican party in much of this area.
McConnell was one of the first Republicans to break into the ‘solid south’ when Nixon’s southern strategy began to pay off at the national level. He was a politician through and through, always ideologically flexible and pragmatic, always with an ear to the ground. Early in his career, he was more of an outsider, a newcomer, a changer. He was comfortable with social conservatism and as an early southern Republican, on the opposite side of the national party on some issues. For most of his career he was considered a moderate and a non-conformist. He was never, and still isn’t, a ‘big business’ type Republican in the mold of a Romney/Cheney/Bush. Mitch avoided taking a hard stance on most issues and avoided negative campaigning, especially at the intra-party level, for most of his career. It was hard to pin down his personal views, which is why he made such an effective leader for so long. When it came to the art of political horse trading and quietly getting things done for his state and for his party, McConnell was a master. He was in many ways a Republican version of Biden, a man who tried to reflect the voters and give them what they wanted rather than try to tell them what to do or whip them into a frenzy. As a younger man, he might well have been able to survive the political turmoil and conflict the party has endured in the wake of Trump and kept his head down long enough to survive to see what’s next.
As has been said, though, he is not a younger man. He is 82 and doesn’t have a couple of decades to wait around. His skills are already declining as will most everyone’s when/if they reach such an age. There’s very little horse trading or compromise going on, just the bare minimum to keep the wheels falling off entirely. Everything is public now. Every comment, every vote, every decision, a politician makes can be discovered, publicized, and criticized almost instantly by almost anybody with Internet access. There is nowhere to hide from the popular will, no way to escape accountability for each and every decision, quiet or loud. The future will belong to politicians who are comfortable with and skilled at speaking directly to the people, rallying the people to the polls to vote or to the streets to protest. Trump personally may or may not win in 2024, but the style of personally appealing to the voters and ignoring the powerful, the establishment, the experts, the wealthy is almost certain to continue. Trump’s success despite his manifest personal failings have blazed the trail that others can and will follow. Shrewd observers can already see the line forming behind Donald to be the next man up. Many of those calling for Mitch to step down are standing in that line themselves, and those that aren’t still recognize that the will of the people right or wrong will eventually carry the day and that the bad old days of plutocrats running the party as their own personal fiefdom will not be returning.
I suspect that Mitch himself realizes this as well. He’s done very little in his career that would suggest to me he is arrogant, stupid, or overly wedded to any particular ideology. Over his career, he has shown himself over and over to be a very shrewd and cautious politician. He’s considered an ‘old guard’ Republican because he’s been around, but unlike Romney and Cheney, he’s not arrogant or foolish enough to treat the party like his personal property and show such disdain for the voters who he likely will need to win elections. He’s not stupid enough to believe that Trump’s movement can be defeated because I don’t think he every personalized it or attributed it solely to Trump. I think he recognized the situation almost immediately and did what he always has done, try to keep the peace and compromise to get as much done as possible. From 2016-2020 at least, he did a passable job. He has held things together longer than I suspect most would or could have, but nobody can stand in the way of history. Mitch doesn’t have the youth, the energy, or the skills to be successful at what politics is now and is going to be for the foreseeable future.
Rather than question his motivations, I say kudos to Mitch for having enough humility to realize his time has passed. I had feared he would go the way of Strom Thurmond or Robert Byrd who kept running for reelection until they were basically being wheeled around the Senate by nurses while everyone else collectively tapped their feet waiting for the grim reaper to come vacate the seat so someone semi-coherent and maybe useful could take their place. In the end though, he checked the final box necessary for me to conclude that yes, he is what I always thought he was, a conniving snake of a politician to be sure, but humbler, smarter, and better than most others of his era.

M James
M James
4 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

A great read, Steve, and an a propos post to this article. McConnell was probably the biggest longstanding thorn in the Democrats’ side, and they will probably not shed many tears at his departure. The smoothest of operators, indeed.