Politico

Mitch McConnell Is Already 2017’s Man of the Year

Written by Lisa

If Donald Trump were a praying man, he’d be praying for the good health of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who this week celebrated his 75th birthday. The crafty Republican, a skilled and hardened veteran of countless political skirmishes, will more than any other person in Washington determine the success or failure of the Trump agenda—and maybe even his presidency. McConnell’s actions to date in this regard have been both essential and impressive. Thus, only two months into the year, 2017 need look no further for its man of the year.

Late in 2006, I interviewed for a job with then-Minority Leader McConnell, and worked for him very briefly before taking a position in the George W. Bush White House. In our first meeting, McConnell was typically restrained; he asked pertinent questions crisply and was otherwise sparing with his utterances. Though he hired me, I had no idea whether he liked me, or agreed with my points, or if I registered much at all. At one point, he glanced at his cellphone—it might have been a BlackBerry—that sat beside him. Noticing a message, he picked the device up calmly, slowly, typed out some presumably short, measured response, then returned the device to the exact same spot from whence it came. As in all things, he was all business: precise, methodical and effective.

Those traits served him particularly well during the 2016 campaign. While most of his colleagues endured the Trump roller-coaster ride with their eyes wild and darting, their hands gripped to the sides of the car as if for their very lives, and their silences punctuated by piercing screams, McConnell was the nothing-can-faze-me dad in the back—calmly waiting for the ride to end so that real work might be done.

There were no anguished, drama-filled will-he-or-won’t-he endorse Trump moments for McConnell. Nor any exhausting tilt-a-whirls about whether or not he might withdraw an endorsement once given. Even after the release of the infamous Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape looked like it was derailing Trump’s presidential ambitions—one poll had Hillary Clinton leading by a whopping 11 points in the aftermath —McConnell did not rush to the nearest exit. Instead, he acted methodically and logically. First, he issued a late-night statement sharing Trump’s own disdain for such comments. Then, he went on with his life. Pressed for further comments on the tape and various other Trump shenanigans, McConnell said simply, “I don’t have any observations to make about the campaign.” Less than a week before the election, when Trump was still expected to lose handily, McConnell perhaps sensed a different mood in the country, or just decided to take a chance, and came out with his most explicit endorsement of his party’s nominee to date.

McConnell, of course, has not been without his detractors, particularly among conservatives who felt that he frustrated efforts during the Obama years to get their priorities accomplished. To those critics clamoring for action, the Senate leader offered the same disheartening refrain: patience. He told those demanding change that he needed a Republican president in office to make that happen. Now, McConnell has that president and that chance. So far, at least, what he’s done for his party has been impressive. Consider:

The Supreme Court

Conservatives cheering Trump’s selection of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court can thank McConnell for defying the odds—and some would argue, all precedents —by denying President Barack Obama the opportunity to replace the late Antonin Scalia upon his untimely death last February. The idea that McConnell could hold together a notoriously fickle, media-sensitive GOP delegation in lockstep on this issue for nine months—particularly with the prospect that a President Hillary Clinton would appoint someone far less to their liking than Merrick Garland—seemed fanciful. Understandably, Democrats were outraged. Various outside groups fulminated. McConnell didn’t care. And, with Gorsuch all but a cinch to pass the Senate this year, after a respectable period of Democratic huffing and puffing, the maneuver will have paid off brilliantly.

Trump’s Cabinet

In an exercise reminiscent of the various “show votes” to repeal Obamacare that Republicans attempted during the Obama years to placate their base, Senate Democrats have done everything in their power to hold up Trump’s Cabinet nominees, even when they knew most if not all of them had the votes to be confirmed anyway. Demands for exhaustive ethics disclosures? Check. Endless questionnaires to drive nominees insane? Check. Sleepovers on the Senate floor? Been there, done that.

McConnell has weathered them all, and so far gotten every nominee but one through. That one exception: Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, who withdrew after reportedly facing a mutiny among some Senate Republicans. McConnell himself expressed confidence to the end that he could get the required votes. Judging by his record, he might have been right.

Elizabeth Warren

One could also argue that McConnell’s rare misstep—his battle with Senator Elizabeth Warren earlier this month—might not have been too damaging a misstep after all. For those whose memory of news cycles is short, Warren attempted to read a letter from Coretta Scott King in an attempt to impugn then-Senator Jeff Sessions, a colleague and Trump’s nominee for attorney general. This was against the rules of the Senate, which prizes decorum above all things, and McConnell was fully in his rights to block her. He did not have to, but did, publicly explain himself by declaring, “She was warned. But she persisted.” Thus leading to a popular battle cry on the left, “she persisted,” which had a lifecycle of roughly 48 hours (an eternity in today’s media age).

Why might this yet pay off for McConnell and the GOP? First, it’s not exactly like they had much to lose. Though McConnell’s action led to criticism in the media that the GOP was hostile to women, that wasn’t exactly a novel attack. The last time any trendy woman associated with the Republican Party was in 1952, when Lucille Ball announced she’d vote for Eisenhower. And by picking a fight with Warren, McConnell instantly elevated her status among the left and, in the process, managed to cause even more grief for his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Schumer, who may be facing the hardest year of anyone in Washington, already has a difficult task on his hands. He has to hold together a team of 48 with wildly varying interests. On one side are 10 up for reelection in 2018 in red states Trump won easily, and thus want their party to show a more moderate, willing-to-get-things-done approach to governance. On the other side are anywhere from 6 to 10 senators who see themselves as their party’s nominee in 2020 and want to fan the flames of a leftist base in no mood to accommodate Trump on anything. Making the progressive Warren, in effect, a rival leader, an irritant to the red-state Democrat seeking reelection next year, and a target of jealousy among other presidential aspirants in his caucus is a problem Schumer does not need added to his sizable list.

As for the rest of the year, McConnell will play an outsize role. It will be he who has to cobble together a majority for Obamacare repeal, a tax reform package and an infrastructure bill that will alienate many of the fiscal hawks in his conference. And it will be he who will either give a red or green light to investigations of the president on issues ranging from his business interests to Russian hacking to whatever new this unorthodox presidency may have in store.

Yes, it’s Mitch McConnell’s year. The president might want to send him a birthday card, and best wishes and prayers for many more.

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Lisa

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