How Mitch McConnell lost by winning

McConnell seen in profile.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell listens during a news conference following weekly policy luncheons at the US Capitol on January 17, 2024, in Washington, DC. | Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

He delivered for the old GOP — but the party had changed underneath him.

For most of his Senate career, Mitch McConnell stood out as one of the most openly ambitious, cynical, and ruthless operators in American politics — single-mindedly focused on winning.

Only toward the end of it — McConnell announced Wednesday that he’ll step down as leader in November — does he seem to have belatedly considered that other things, such as the continued functioning of democracy in the US, might matter, too. But that realization did not come soon enough.

McConnell, who repeatedly cited Ronald Reagan in his speech Wednesday, wanted to win and deliver for the old Republican Party. He achieved that. But what he failed to grasp was that the party had changed underneath him, threatening values he claimed to hold dear. The result was that all his winning may have come with catastrophic consequences, at home and abroad, should Trump return to the presidency.

According to McConnell’s memoir, he’d wanted to become majority leader since about the time he first joined the Senate in 1985. A little over two decades later, in 2006, the top GOP Senate job was opening up — but the party was polling poorly and at serious risk of losing its majority, in part due to President George W. Bush’s Iraq War.

So McConnell went to the Oval Office and privately asked Bush to start pulling out troops to help the GOP (and, implicitly, himself). Bush was irked, he later wrote in his memoir: “I made it clear I would set troop levels to achieve victory in Iraq, not victory at the polls.”

The ensuing blue wave meant McConnell began what would turn out to be an 18-year run in the top GOP Senate job as a mere minority leader. And as Republicans fell into a deep Senate hole in the 2008 elections, he’d spend years afterward single-mindedly devoted to the goal of getting that majority — filibustering Barack Obama’s agenda and nominees to an unprecedented degree, and escalating polarization and partisan combat.

Once McConnell got his majority (in the 2014 midterms), his next goal was to elect a Republican president — hence his blanket refusal to consider any Obama nominee to the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, and hence his accommodation with the rise of Donald Trump. All of it was for wins for McConnell’s party, his coalition, his team. It paid off with three Supreme Court confirmations in four years — an incredible, country-changing success for the right.

As for President Trump’s more distasteful qualities, they could be managed. Maybe Trump would complain about NATO, but the GOP Senate and the nominees needing Senate approval would keep him in line. Maybe Trump would spread nonsense about voter fraud, but the GOP Senate would confirm Biden’s win.

Shortly after the election, McConnell emphasized that Trump was “100 percent within his right” to legally contest the results. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” an anonymous senior Republican told the Washington Post then. “No one seriously thinks the results will change.” Plus, there were those two Senate runoffs in Georgia that would determine whether McConnell would keep his majority — important to keep the team together before that.

The January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol made it clear that McConnell was playing with fire, and he sounded genuinely shocked at the results. But there was still time to make amends. If Trump were impeached and convicted, he could be barred from holding office again. McConnell’s team soon leaked that the leader welcomed the impeachment effort and now wanted to “purge” Trump from the party.

But in the end, he failed to get it done. We will never know for sure if McConnell could have turned the tide and gotten Trump convicted in his 2021 Senate impeachment trial. It’s possible — I’d even say probable — that if he did stick his neck out, Republican senators would have rejected him and ended his term as leader years earlier. But in the end, McConnell passed the buck — he voted not guilty, citing a procedural rationale (that a former president couldn’t be convicted). The true reason may have been that he wanted to remain leader, which he did, despite Trump’s frequent attacks on him.

During Biden’s term, we’ve often seen a pragmatic and even surprisingly moralistic McConnell. Rather than pursuing maximal obstruction on all fronts, McConnell approved various bipartisan bills, including one aimed at preventing another Trumpian attempted election theft. McConnell has also focused more on foreign policy than at any point in his career, becoming a champion of Ukraine’s cause and working hard to try to get more aid for the country approved by his skeptical party.

But Trump worked against that cause, and the Ukraine aid bill remains stalled in the House. And as Trump’s comeback has loomed, McConnell has bent to political reality. He appears to have recognized that his relationship with the former president is too fraught for him to lead the Senate GOP if Trump returns to office; hence his decision to step down.

He’s even reportedly been engaged in backchannel talks about endorsing Trump. “Mr. McConnell assured his colleagues that he would do whatever it takes to unify the party and win back control of the Senate,” the New York Times reported.

Whatever it takes — Ukraine and American democracy be damned. In the end, McConnell is a political animal, nothing more.