For all the chaos of the Trump campaign, Paul Ryan’s role in the election seemed to move along a set pattern. Every few weeks, when Trump said something particularly egregious, Ryan would dutifully trudge to a nearby podium and deliver an acceptably stern rebuttal to whatever the careening GOP candidate had said. Then, as the controversy was washed away in the next news cycle, Ryan would retire his faux-outrage and pragmatically announce that Trump, despite occasional threats to life, liberty, and happiness, was more likely to sign Republican bills and thus maintained Ryan’s not-so-easily lost support. What is, after all, a Constitution or democratic norms when they are held before the glory of Ryan’s vision of a pre-tax adjustment to the Medicare quarterly interest rate? (Note: This is a made-up name for a tax cut for wealthy people.)
If one can give Ryan any credit, it’s for at least emerging here and there to make a temporary statement of disapproval. Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, passed through the election as the ghost of a rumored shadow. When the media procured a tape of Trump bragging about his apparent enthusiasm for sexual assault, McConnell boldly proclaimed “I don’t have any observations to make.” Having consigned such rhetoric to the history books, McConnell remained as scarce as possible for much of the race.
Before election night, McConnell’s non-observations and half-nod of support seemed likely to be forgotten, but then Trump claimed victory and made McConnell a curious central figure in the new political order. Obviously, as a Republican, McConnell will be plenty happy to send tax cuts and program-guttings to Trump for signatory approval. However, Trump has long cast himself as a strong leader and anti-establishment figure, and Steve Bannon, a longtime critic of traditional Republicans, has already emerged as a major power in the White House. Despite their shared party, McConnell, as a six-term Senate institutionalist, could easily find himself in opposition to the White House.
One complicating factor in assessing McConnell’s potential role in the coming political drama is that it’s not entirely certain what he actually believes in. As detailed in Alec MacGillis’ short but highly informative 2014 book on McConnell, The Cynic, the aspect of his career that McConnell seems proudest of is the many elections he’s won. The legislation he’s passed and supported along the way is a barely visible part of the story.
Also, although any contemporary observer would consider him a conservative Republican, he’s made something of an ideological journey over the years. In 1963, while still in college, he wrote a column urging the Republican Party to embrace civil rights legislation and later interned for a Senator who helped pass it. He named his cat Rocky in honor of Nelson Rockefeller, the moderate Republican governor of New York who had furiously opposed conservative icon Barry Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention. After he became a county executive in the Louisville area in 1978, advocates credited him for effectively blocking local challenges to Roe v. Wade and considered him to be pro-choice. And finally, he declined to support Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1976, and actually listed Reagan as his fourth choice in the 1980 election. It’s impossible to survey McConnell’s pre-Senate career and conclude that he was anything but a moderate to liberal Republican, but then Mitch went to Washington.
McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984 by a margin of only 5,000 votes, and undoubtedly owed the win to the coattails of Ronald Reagan, who won the state by 238,000. The new Senator learned the lesson of that race all too well, and since then he has drifted along ideologically as his state and his party moved to the right. He’s now a reliably pro-life Republican, hardly an active voice on civil rights, pays tribute to Reagan whenever humanly possible, and has even disavowed his ideologically moderate cat Rocky (His staff now says that Rocky, feline RINO that he was, was his ex-wife’s cat).
Perhaps it’s fruitless to attempt to attempt to draw any clear ideology out of McConnell’s finger-in-the-wind approach to politics. An ideologically flexible politician is no particular novelty and he’s obviously made a tremendously successful career out of it. However, if McConnell prizes winning elections and maintaining his status as majority leader above all else, those goals are potentially threatened by an erratic and unpopular president.
Generally the upcoming midterms would be a concern here, but the Republican Senate majority is protected by a highly favorable slate of elections in 2018, as they only need to defend eight seats while the Democrats are defending 25. If Trump is historically unpopular that may open a window for the Democrats, but for now the GOP majority seems to be safe. Even if that is the case, however, there could be fractures between the White House and McConnell over individual races. Bannon fired an initial shot across the bow recently when he allegedly suggested that McConnell’s days picking Senate candidates were over, and also hinted that the White House may support a primary challenger to Trump critic Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
The 2020 elections, distant though they may seem, could be the bigger threat to McConnell given the favorable map for Democrats and the fact that he himself is up for election. More than three years out it is futile to attempt any prophecy regarding the 2020 cycle (particularly since the country now seems to change dramatically between Tuesday to Thursday) but McConnell is surely aware that there may be a political cost to aligning too closely with a hugely polarizing president who entered office as the least-popular president-elect in history. Approval ratings can always change, but given the intensity of opposition to Trump, it will be difficult for him to become a broadly popular leader.
While these electoral risks are surely a concern for McConnell, they are more long-term than immediate. In the short-term, he has a Senate majority, a Supreme Court nominee on the docket, and a president willing to sign Republican bills, so for now it’s hard to see McConnell breaking with the administration in any significant way. He may well mimic Ryan’s strategy of feigning principle when necessary but generally embracing a philosophy of pragmatic partisanship. Behind the scenes, the consternation of Republican donors might be a growing and more immediate concern for McConnell, as he has long been a prolific and enthusiastic fundraiser for the party. The Koch brothers have repeatedly spoken out against Trump and there was talk of widespread discomfort with Trump when they held their annual donor summit in January. There were also reports that their donor network intends to raise up to $400 million for the 2018 elections, which will surely draw the attention of McConnell and congressional Republicans.
Ultimately, whatever the cause, the calculating, ideologically-mysterious McConnell may emerge as an important foil to the Trump administration, even if he is an uninspiring bulwark for those worried that American democracy itself may be in danger. McConnell will go far to work with the administration, but given the far-right, authoritarian leanings of Trump and those around him, McConnell could find himself in a situation where his power and perhaps the Senate itself is threatened. It is also possible that, at 75 years old, McConnell might be thinking about his legacy and more willing to stand up to aggressive moves by the Bannon and Trump administration. Despite his partisanship and uncertain convictions, McConnell has always revered the Senate. A more inspiring defender of the country’s democratic institutions could surely be imaged, but for now the country might have to hope that the dour Kentucky leader discovers his higher principles.