McConnell’s legacy is not what he did for Kentucky but what he did for himself

(Reprinted from the KY Courier-Journal)
Reed Galen, Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson and John Weaver, Opinion contributors Published 11:34 a.m. ET

May 28, 2020 | Updated 12:41 p.m. ET May 28, 2020

What story will history tell about Mitch McConnell’s time in the United States Senate? In his mind, probably, he’ll join the pantheon of titans like Henry Clay, Steve Douglas and Lyndon Johnson. Will he see himself standing in the well of the Senate, presiding over the mundane? As a grand legislative strategist moving America forward? Or as a master tactician who knew every last Senate rule and used them to his advantage?

McConnell’s history will not occupy four volumes, and the bulk of a historian’s life as Robert Caro’s towering works about LBJ have. His accomplishments are barely enough for a magazine article.

It’s more likely that the story of Mitch McConnell will document his rise to power and fortune. When he took office in 1985, he was a pauper. Today, he is one of the wealthiest members of the U.S. Senate. He controls a vast network of groups that raise and spend tens of millions of dollars on his behalf and on the one thing he takes most seriously — his personal standing.

It probably won’t have to do with how Kentucky has fared over his three decades in office. At the time of McConnell’s first election in 1984, the Bluegrass State was 50th in adult literacy with one-fifth of its population in poverty. Today, his home state, despite an annual intake of $168 billion in federal revenue, remains mired near the bottom in many categories linked to the personal well-being of its citizens.

Nor will students learn leadership lessons from McConnell’s time on Capitol Hill. Always playing the angles, McConnell has positioned himself as the only place the members of his conference can go. If he loses in November, there is no heir apparent because he’s almost singularly done away with the structure that made committee chairs centers of power in their own right.

McConnell took enormous pride in dedicating an entire legislative house of Congress to ensuring that Barack Obama was a one-term president. In doing so, he transformed himself into the kind of politician Americans loathe: a person for whom politics is a zero-sum game to be played only in the halls of power and only for the benefit of a lucky (and loyal) few. Even after Obama was reelected, McConnell’s brand was almost pure obstruction, even in moments of national need.

What he will leave behind is a conference full of members afraid of their own shadows. Today, the majority of the U.S. Senate finds itself stuck between McConnell’s mercurial demands and the declining prospects of President Donald Trump. McConnell kept his troops together during the impeachment trial by intimidation, near-bribery and threats that anyone who strayed would find themselves cut off from the National Republican Senate Committee’s ocean of cash. Despite his “success” at turning his caucus into a blocking force for Trump, polls show those up for reelection will pay a heavy price for it this fall.

Of course, McConnell will lean on his ability to select and confirm conservative jurists to the federal bench, a lifetime appointment. Under classic conservative orthodoxy, it is essential for the judicial branch to interpret laws based on strict constitutional constructions, not to “legislate from the bench.”

Instead, McConnell has stacked the American justice system with conservative activists, not jurists, many of whom are neither strict constructionists nor qualified to hear a case. His end, and intended result, is to create a long-standing antagonist in the country’s culture wars — ensuring that little is achieved on the most pressing issues before us.

When they hang McConnell’s portrait outside the Senate chamber, there will be speeches to his endurance and single-minded purpose as Republican leader. What they won’t say is that his achievements are retrograde: The Senate passed tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, confirmed judges to act in the stead of conservative legislative philosophy, and got rich beyond most people’s imagination in the bargain.

The story will be that one man, Mitch McConnell, knew better than anyone how to use those around him for his personal gain. He’s used Trump, members of his party in the Senate and the people of Kentucky, as little more than the conduit to his personal and financial enrichment.

With all these machinations, Kentuckians have waited nearly 40 years for their better day — one that a powerful Senate majority leader could’ve provided in the way of take-home projects, federal spending or even simple concern for his constituents. From the hollow to the horse barn, however, they’ll have to keep waiting.

Reed Galen, Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson and John Weaver are co-founders of The Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans working to make sure Donald Trump is a one-term president.