“We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this unprecedented partisan filibuster.”
Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
One wonders what some of the great figures in U.S. Senate history would make of the events of the last several days. And what would they make of the hypocrisy?
Think about Robert A. Taft, a Republican conservative of the old school, shaking his head in disbelief at senators in both parties again ignoring their political and moral responsibilities, while genuflecting in praise of Donald Trump’s arguably unconstitutional missile strike on a Syrian airbase. This is the same Senate that refused to authorize military action in 2013 after Barack Obama insisted that Congress debate and vote on launching a strike against yet another Middle Eastern nation.
Oh, the Hypocrisy…
To read the justifications for stiffing the president in 2013 and to compare those words to the cheerleading for Trump’s action now is to see (again) in the starkest terms the intellectual bankruptcy – not to mention the hypocrisy – of the modern Republican Party. And now they have pulled the United States Senate down to a new low.
Republican after Republican has rushed in front of the cameras to praise a president who could scarcely find Syria on a map last year and who most serious people know will be unable to fashion a coherent strategy in the wake of his hair trigger launch order. But, no matter. Donald Trump may be a fool, but he’s a Republican fool and we support our president – at least while he remains popular with the Tea Party base.
The ugly little truth is that Congress has systematically frittered away, at least since the early 1950s, its solemn responsibility to provide checks on a president in matters of foreign policy, especially a president’s power to launch a war. This has happened as
Republicans regularly pledge fidelity to a Constitution they simply ignore when it proves politically convenient to do so. Never mind that only Congress can declare war. Forget the hypocrisy of dismissing his predecessor as “feckless,” while offering a blank check to a guy who had to fire his National Security Advisor less than a month into office, who has dismissed the intelligence committee as “Nazi-like, and who can’t get organized enough to appoint key deputies all across the national security apparatus.
Never has the abdication of Congressional responsibility in the area of foreign affairs seemed more serious than now. Never have checks on a dangerous president been more in the national interest.
In a nutshell senators, and I don’t confine this critique exclusively to Republicans, want to praise a one-off missile strike as amounting to tough action, but still provide themselves, for purely political reasons, plausible deniability that they had anything to do with the decision. Make no mistake we have opened a new war in Syria and not a war directed at the stated enemy – ISIS. The target of the missile strike was the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. We didn’t destroy ISIS aircraft with 59 missiles. It was the Syrian air force we were after and perhaps for very sound reasons. If so, Congress must get involved.
If, and almost certainly when, things take a turn for the worse with increasing American involvement in Syria the sunshine patriots in Congress won’t have to justify a difficult vote. That is their real aim. Their hands will be clean if not their conscience. It is a shameless posture and it is not what the Constitution demands, but it works – at least for the moment – to tighten the grip on power of the Senate majority leader and the man in the White House that he further enables.
Mitch McConnell is the perfect leader for the modern Senate. In the same week he is able to protect his caucus from having to make a tough vote on Syria and he manages the Senate rules to placate the 40 percent of Americans who want the Supreme Court to revisit everything from the New Deal to Roe v. Wade.
The Senate Changes…Forever
Imagine the reaction of Mike Mansfield of Montana, perhaps the greatest majority leader in Senate history, to the Senate changing its rules merely to put a very, very conservative judge on the Supreme Court. And the majority set about changing the rules after refusing for nearly a year to even consider the nomination of a moderate jurist, a judge appointed by a president of the opposing party.
The Senate as a political institution, while never close to perfect, has frequently in our history transcended the petty partisanship of the moment in order to provide genuine leadership that reflected the broad public interest. Not any more.
One day historians will look back on this period and find fault, I suspect, with small-minded leadership in both political parties, but they will reserve their greatest contempt for the Senator from Kentucky.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows, hardly a blind partisan, but a long-term and nuanced observer of American politics, recently did his own Twitter summation of what I’ll call the Reign of the Partisan. Fallows said we would look back on the current time and mark the “decline in national governance” to Mitch McConnell’s actions beginning in 2006.
While in the minority then McConnell “routinized the filibuster in [an] unprecedented way.” It is a modern myth that the filibuster, the need for a super majority of 60 senators to cut off debate and bring an issue to a vote, has always and routinely been invoked in the Senate. It hasn’t. McConnell made the filibuster routine.
Now in one of the rawest displays of partisan political power in the history of the Senate McConnell engineered a change of the filibuster rules in order to push through Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick. And, of course, the action was taken in the wake of McConnell unilaterally refusing to consider any Court nominee from Obama.
I know, I know, Democrats earlier changed filibuster rules for other judicial positions and a guy named Chuck Schumer has used the filibuster on judicial nominees for purely partisan reasons. As lamentable as that action was when Democrats did it McConnell’s action now is of an entirely different degree of seriousness and partisanship. Invoking the so called “nuclear option” will change the Senate permanently and for the worse – and yes it can get worse – will deepen tribal partisanship and has finally settled the question of whether the Supreme Court has become just another partisan branch of the government. It has.
Yet changing the Senate rules is hardly all that McConnell hath wrought. After Obama’s election in 2008 McConnell said his own “measure of success,” as Jim Fallows says, “would be denying [Obama] a second term.” From day one he was all about obstruction by any means in order to thwart the Obama presidency. The idea of compromise, any notion of working together on national priorities was cast to the winds in favor of raw partisanship and a GOP majority.
[McConnell, we now know, was also the main hold out in Congress that prevented an earlier and stronger pre-election response to Russian interference in the presidential election. You have to ask why he was reluctant to send a strong signal about all that, but I think you know the answer.]
I listened closely to the arguments advanced by both sides in the run up to the change in Senate rules that paved the way for Judge Neil Gorsuch to slip comfortably into Antonin Scalia’s old seat on the high court. I came away stunned by the shallowness of the logic on both sides. What neither side could say, but what is demonstrably true is that there is simply no middle ground left in American – or Senate – politics. Partisanship rules on absolutely everything. If our guy does it that’s fine. If the other guy does it, well that’s an outrage.
The filibuster, or more correctly the idea of “unlimited debate,” exists for two basic reasons: to protect the rights of the minority and to force compromise and political accommodation on contentious issues. Was the practice abused before McConnell weaponized it? Of course it was, but until relatively recently the idea of seeking some degree of political consensus on something as serious as going to war or giving lifetime tenure to a Supreme Court judge wasn’t as unthinkable as it has now become. If you are looking for someone to blame for this disgusting toxicity you can start with Mitch McConnell.
As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it: “By rights, McConnell’s tombstone should say that he presided over the end of the Senate. And I’d add a second line: ‘He broke America.’ No man has done more in recent years to undermine the functioning of U.S. government. His has been the epitome of unprincipled leadership, the triumph of tactics in service of short-term power.”
The cynicism of McConnell and his commitment to raw power is actually most clearly on display in his response to Donald Trump as president. McConnell is not stupid and he is certainly smarter than the current occupant of the White House. McConnell knows Trump is an arrogant fool, not a conservative and clueless on anything like real policy. But Trump is also, to use the old Communist putdown, “a useful idiot,” a means to an end for the Senate leader.
McConnell enables and encourages a man he knows to be unfit because Trump means power, particularly to remake the Court. And, of course, McConnell’s wife is in the Cabinet in a useful position at the Transportation Department where, should there be a big infrastructure bill in the future, the money will flow. McConnell is deeply cynical, but he knows an opportunity when he sees it. He’s going to make the most the Trump presidency for as long as it lasts.
Ironically, McConnell’s final wrecking of the Senate as a functioning institution fits perfectly with the near complete destruction of the old conservative Republican Party that Trump has engineered. This point was well made by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz in a recent piece in Rolling Stone. That article dissected Trump’s obvious and extreme case of narcissistic personality disorder, but also touched on the political crisis that McConnell and Trump have created and now preside over.
“It’s a sign, actually, of how severely we need functioning parties,” Wilentz said. “Because when they work, they are in fact a check on the emergence of this kind of character [Trump]. You can’t get where Trump is now in a functioning party system. It took this particular political crisis, which was a political crisis, to produce a president who has this trait. Normally, we can weed them out.”
Mitch McConnell has consistently played to the worst instincts of the Republican base. He’s never missed a chance to deepen the partisan divide. His strategy is all about the next election, never about the next generation. McConnell – and Trump for that matter – are the perfect characters to stand at center stage while national governance disappears faster than factory jobs in the Rust Belt.
Bob Taft and Mike Mansfield would not recognize the place we inhabit or the Senate Mitch McConnell has made. In fact one suspects they would be appalled. But no matter. McConnell is winning even if the country isn’t.