McConnell will go from Trump's 'yes man' to Biden's 'no man' – opinion

Sen. Mitch McConnell proudly calls himself the “Grim Reaper” because his desk is where Democratic legislation goes to die.

US SENATE Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks after the Senate GOP leadership election on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (photo credit: ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS)
US SENATE Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks after the Senate GOP leadership election on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.
(photo credit: ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS)
Mitch McConnell is the happiest Republican in Washington, and he’s about to become the most powerful one as well.
The Kentucky Republican was just elected to a seventh term, and unless the Democrats win two runoff Senate votes in Georgia in January, he is likely to reelected Senate majority leader. And this time he won’t be the errand boy and chief enabler for a president he didn’t like or respect.
For now, he is loyally backing Donald Trump’s specious claims of election fraud as the lame-duck president attempts to hold on to power. McConnell has said he won’t recognize Biden’s election until the Electoral College does on December 14.
After January 20, McConnell will be the highest-ranking Republican in the federal government and will consider himself on virtual equal footing with his old (they’re both the same age) Senate colleague, Joe Biden, the 46th president of the United States.
It’s not a new role for McConnell. He was in the same position for most of the Obama presidency, and took great pleasure in pursuing what he called his “single most important” goal: assuring the nation’s first African-American president’s failure. He can be expected to do the same for Obama’s former veep despite their history of working together as Senate colleagues and during the Obama administration.
Largely unencumbered by ideology, McConnell started out as moderate Republican, but that got in the way of his ambition and disappeared. He shares Trump’s “win-at-any-price” principle.
Rep. John Yarmuth, who is Jewish and a former Republican turned Democrat, who has known McConnell for 50 years, said the senator “never had any core principles.... He was just driven to be powerful.”
Bill Kristol, a staunch conservative who was former vice president Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, said, “No one with a straight face would ever call [McConnell] a populist. Trump came to drain the swamp, and now he’s working with the biggest swamp creature of them all.”
McConnell had no compunction about ramming through Trump’s federal judicial nominees, no matter how incompetent, unqualified and unprepared they were, right up to election eve. It was about quantity, not quality. Nor did he have any shame in blocking Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland because it was an election year, although the election was eight months away.
McConnell proudly calls himself the “Grim Reaper” because his desk is where Democratic legislation goes to die.
After chafing over four years as a Republican president’s “yes” man, he can now play a role he prefers, being a Democratic president’s “no” man.
If Democrats win both Senate run-off races in Georgia, there will be a 50-50 split in the Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris will be casting a lot of tie-breaking votes, starting with the election of Chuck Schumer as Senate majority leader.
Whether as minority or majority leader, McConnell is a master legislative tactician. He proved that during the Obama administration when he took pride in being a master obstructionist for a president for whom, according to a Kentucky reporter, he showed “a total lack of respect.” He preferred dealing with Biden, and the two were often able to cut deals.
Much has changed since then and since Biden was in the Senate. Congress has become even more partisan, more polarized, more angry, and McConnell has become more autocratic.
TRADITIONALLY, PRESIDENTS are given the cabinet they want, with rare exceptions, but will a Republican Senate more polarized than any in memory try to block Biden’s nominees or demand a price for confirmation, such as cabinet posts for some of their own?
On the courts, where McConnell’s only standard has been a conservative with a pulse, he can be expected to dramatically raise the bar and delay and block Biden’s nominees. He’s already served notice that only “centrists” and no “radical progressives” will even be considered.
Regardless of which party controls the Senate, Biden indicated he plans to reverse scores of Trump policies by issuing a flurry of executive orders. He also will be sending nominations to fill jobs from cabinet secretaries on down. And he will have a legislative agenda.
McConnell has one big advantage over Biden: He cares less about making policy than preventing it. Power, not policy drives him. Raising political money plays a big role in his power game, and if that requires shaping national policy, so be it, but his primary motivation is maintaining and adding to his power. Two of his signature issues have been protecting the coal industry and blocking campaign finance reform. It’s about principal, not principle.
Biden particularly wants to reverse Trump’s rollback of clean air and water regulations, which will give McConnell heartburn because he is tight with some of the worst polluters in the country, particularly the coal industry. He had a lot of help from his wife, Elaine Chao, who was president George W. Bush’s labor secretary with jurisdiction over mine safety. As Trump’s transportation secretary, she assigned an aide to take special care of all matters involving Kentucky. Both McConnells deny there is any conflict of interest in her cabinet posts or in the fact her family owns a major shipping company.
As one of the Senate’s most prolific fundraisers, it is no surprise that McConnell is the leading opponent of campaign finance reform. He’s come a long way since a Watergate era, when he advocated public financing of presidential elections and called money a “cancer” on the body politic.
Biden can reverse many of Trump’s policies – immigration, fuel-efficiency standards, the Muslim immigration ban, Dreamers, protection for civil servants, and scores of public health and environmental rulings – but many more will require Congressional authorization and funding, including infrastructure, repealing tax cuts, gun safety, healthcare reform and raising the minimum wage.
After giving in to four years of intimidation by Trump, Republicans will suddenly wake up from our long national nightmare and remember they used to be budget hawks and fiscal conservatives every time the Democratic president proposed new human service and environmental spending.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar, told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that McConnell “will go down in history as one of the most significant people in destroying the fundamentals of our constitutional democracy.”
He earned his nickname “Moscow Mitch” by persistently blocking House-passed legislation to combat Russian election interference. Thanks to Trump and McConnell, Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t stopped trying to undermine and destabilize American democracy. McConnell appears poised to do just that for his own partisan purposes. Success may make him the happiest Republican in town and ease Putin’s depression over the defeat of his willing helper, Donald Trump.
The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He is a Capitol Hill veteran who served as a senior adviser to Rep. Benjamin S. Rosenthal of New York and a legislative assistant for Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey.