WASHINGTON ― He is a man who values political expediency above most else. He is cunning, he is calculating and he aligns with those he needs to keep his position of power.
In the 1400s, this was a classic character in one of Niccolò Machiavelli’s books. In 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reprising the role.
The Republican senator from Kentucky pulled off some of the shrewdest political feats of the year by making bold bets aimed at benefitting himself and his party.
His biggest coup was preventing President Barack Obama from filling a Supreme Court vacancy and reshaping the judiciary for a generation. The plan was hatched literally an hour after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, with McConnell announcing he would block any Obama replacement ― an unprecedented level of obstruction aimed at a sitting president. He came up with the argument that, because Obama only had one year left in office, the next president had a right to fill the court seat. Democrats complained loudly, but McConnell, with his soft-spoken, measured drawl, kept them at bay. Republicans followed his lead and denied the president’s pick, Merrick Garland, a Senate hearing.
It was a cynical tactic, and it worked: Nearly a year later, the Supreme Court seat sits empty for President-elect Donald Trump. McConnell, undoubtedly, will have heavy input on who should fill it.
“All these guys are ruthless, but he just takes it to another level,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to McConnell’s foe, outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “I defy you to find anything the guy stands for, except for partisanship. He’s ruthless in that he has no core positions.”
McConnell’s skills as a politician are immense. Often, they’re evident in the decisions he makes about whether to get involved in the political fray at all. During the campaign, for example, he went conspicuously silent as Trump made headlines for misogynist, racist and otherwise offensive rants. For that, McConnell earned the rarest thing in Washington: a pass. As House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came under fire for standing by Trump, McConnell often skated by.
Yet, when the Kentucky senator learned Russian hackers were interfering in U.S. elections and helping Trump, he was suddenly active, trying to squash the allegations behind closed doors. He and other congressional leaders were secretly briefed about the situation in September, according to a Washington Post report. Not only did McConnell reportedly cast doubt on the intelligence, but he “made clear” he would treat any White House effort to go public about it as an act of partisan politics, the Post reported.
McConnell did co-sign a letter with congressional leaders in late September warning states generally about the vulnerability of their election infrastructure to cyberattacks. Intelligence officials, meanwhile, issued an October statement confirming Russians were interfering in U.S. elections, but didn’t connect the dots that the aim was to help Trump.
Two months after McConnell tamped down talk of going public about Russian hackers hurting Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Trump won. Life has since been quite good for the Kentucky Republican: His wife, Elaine Chao, was picked as Trump’s transportation secretary, and McConnell retained his post as Senate majority leader, meaning he will shape the nation’s legislative agenda for the next four years.
His “just win” tactics engender begrudging respect among some Democrats. But the vast majority of the party sees McConnell as, ultimately, a destructive force who will ruin government at large in pursuit of his own agenda. His treatment of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is “the utmost example” of someone putting party before all else, said Matt Canter, a former top official at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“He straight-up ignored the Constitution and stole the judiciary for partisan gain,” Canter said. “I don’t believe he’s ever thought of the responsibility of governing. His crusade against McCain-Feingold [the 2002 campaign finance reform law] was really the horse he rode to power on. It was not about governing; it was about tearing down consensus for partisan gain. He is not a governing guy. He never has been.”
Critics have to admit, though, McConnell out-maneuvered everyone.
“He executed it brilliantly. He won,” Manley said, referring to McConnell keeping the Supreme Court vacancy open. “He’s very good at blocking things.”
A McConnell spokesman declined to comment on the GOP’s leader’s tactics, but pointed to McConnell’s remarks at a press conference the day after the elections. One of the first things he highlighted was that Trump gets to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.
“I said in February of this year, to a hail of controversy, that I thought it best if the American people decided this appointment. I thought I was on pretty firm footing and it had been 80 years since a vacancy created in the middle of a presidential election year was confirmed by the Senate,” McConnell told reporters. “So the American people have spoken and President Trump will send us a nominee, I assume, early next year.”
McConnell didn’t suddenly become shrewd when he became Senate majority leader. As Alec MacGillis, a senior editor at New Republic, details in his 2014 book, The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, McConnell has spent decades doing whatever it takes to keep his grip on power.
There was the time in 1977 when he won his race for Jefferson County judge-executive after earning the crucial support of unions, something he did by presenting himself a strong supporter of public employee collective bargaining. He admitted later that position was nothing more than “open pandering.”
Then there was his Senate race in 1984, when he ran entertaining but misleading ads about his opponent, Sen. Walter Dee Huddleston, having such a terrible attendance record in the Senate that McConnell had to send bloodhounds searching for him. Huddleston had one of the strongest attendance records in Congress, but the campaign ads showing dogs running around sniffing for him helped McConnell win. McConnell later conceded his radio ad attacking Huddleston’s attendance in committee hearings was “fundamentally unfair” and “kind of ridiculous.”
There was also the time in 1990 when McConnell smeared his Senate challenger, Harvey Sloane ― a wealthy New Englander who walked away from a life of privilege to become a doctor for the poor in Kentucky ― by casting him as a prescription fraudster. They were in a tight race, so McConnell leaked to the press that Sloane had used an expired Drug Enforcement Administration registration number to prescribe himself sleeping pills to help with pain from hip replacement surgery. The state’s medical licensure board chided Sloane for doing so, but said no formal sanctions were warranted. But McConnell still moved forward with brutal ads featuring images of vials and pills, and a narrator describing Sloane’s penchant for prescribing “powerful depressants” for himself as “double the safe dose without a legal permit.”
Jim Cauley, a Democratic operative who worked on Sloane’s campaign at the time, says in MacGillis’ book that he knew the race was over once those ads ran. And, indeed, McConnell narrowly won.
“Harvey is a good, honest human. That they did that to him pissed me off more than it surprised me,” Cauley said. “You take a guy who moves to Kentucky and opens up a health center in West Louisville ― how do you make that bad? Well, they did. They take good people and make them bad.”
There are other instances of McConnell putting political gain above all else. In 2006, he privately urged President George W. Bush to pull troops out of Iraq to improve his party’s chances in midterm elections, even as he staunchly defended the war in public. He flipped into opposition on a flag-burning amendment ― a meaningless but symbolic measure ― so he could later frame his opposition to campaign finance reform as First Amendment principle. He notoriously said in 2010 that the single-most important thing Senate Republicans wanted to achieve was making Obama a one-term president.
But GOP operatives say the very thing Democrats criticize McConnell for ― his laser focus on the long game ― is one of his greatest assets. They say the fact that he wasn’t ruffled by the rapidly changing dynamics of the 2016 elections served him well. Objectively, it did.
As Trump drummed up controversies on the campaign trail, McConnell calculated that the best way for Republicans to hang onto their Senate majority was to leave it to his 24 senators up for re-election to craft their own messages back home. He stayed mostly quiet as his party’s presidential nominee continued getting in hot water. In the end, 18 GOP senators ran ahead of Trump in their state races and Republicans kept their Senate majority.
McConnell also helped convince Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to run for his Senate seat again after he bowed out of the presidential race. During a weekly Senate Republican lunch in the spring, McConnell asked those in the room if they wanted to see Rubio come back, and everybody raised their hands. He urged those senators to call Rubio and tell him. So they did. Soon after, Rubio jumped into the Senate race and ultimately retained the seat for Republicans.
“Not only is he smarter than everybody else, his will is stronger than iron and he possesses a superhuman ability to focus,” said John Ashbrook, a former top aide to McConnell.
But is he the “evil genius” that Democratic operatives have described over the years? Ashbrook laughed off the idea.
Manley said there’s at least one difference between McConnell and the enduring 15th century stereotype of a political villain.
“I think Machiavelli had at least a little bit of heart,” he said. “I don’t think McConnell does.”