When Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pulled a new rule of American politics out of thin air and said there could be no vote on a replacement during a hotly contested election year. When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement Wednesday afternoon, McConnell pulled a distinction out of thin air and said that the autumn of a midterm election was a perfect time to confirm a new Supreme Court justice.
It is, yes, hypocritical.
Will be interesting to see how some GOP senators rationalize the idea that it’s suddenly now ok to debate an open SCOTUS seat in an election year. They may fully pull that hypocrisy muscle.— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) June 27, 2018
And McConnell’s great strength as a politician is that he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that it’s hypocritical, he doesn’t care that I think it’s hypocritical, and he doesn’t care that Chuck Todd thinks it’s hypocritical. He just waives the objection away with a sniff and sneer and on we go.
It works for McConnell because he’s not interested in being thought of as a high-minded guy or in being well-regarded by high-minded people. He wants to be thought of as an effective party politician, and he is an effective politician. Ask me, ask Chuck Todd, ask anyone.
There’s a perfect alignment between the reputation he wants, the reputation he has, and the reputation he deserves in a way that’s unequalled among American politicians and that allows him to conduct himself with an even greater degree of shamelessness than Donald Trump himself since unlike the all-id Trump, McConnell isn’t out of control he’s just willing to be utterly ruthless in pursuit of his political objectives.
It would be wrong to see this as a zero-cost strategy. Most people who get into electoral politics do it, on some level, because they want to be liked and admired, and McConnell does not. A 2018 paper by Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels shows that McConnell is strikingly disliked by both Democrats and Republicans, with Dems rating him about on par with the National Rifle Association and Republicans liking him less than college professors, environmentalists, or people on food stamps. But nevertheless, he persisted.
McConnell pioneered the unprecedented use of obstructionist tactics in 2009 and 2010 — going so far as to block action on even measures Republicans didn’t disagree with — in order to make American politics as contentious as possible, knowing that an ineffective policy response to the Great Recession would redound to Republicans’ benefits. He blocked a bipartisan statement on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, implicitly partnering with Vladimir Putin to put Trump in the White House. He held Scalia’s seat open until it could be filled with Neil Gorsuch, and he greeted Gorsuch’s vote to uphold Trump’s discriminatory travel ban with a sneer.
Now the odds are overwhelming that not only will he get to replace the slightly moderate Justice Kennedy with another hardline right-winger, but that he’ll be able to reap some partisan gain for his trouble.
Part of the genius of his shameless Calvinballing is that it not only blocks the opposition party, it frustrates them. Angry and frightened by the prospect of the Supreme Court moving further rightward, much of the progressive base is inevitably going to take out their rage not on Trump, McConnell, and vulnerable Senate Republicans like Dean Heller (R-NV) but on Democrats for not being able to make the right tactical choices to block him — just as much of the progressive rank-and-file reacted to disappointment with Democrats’ legislative productivity in 2009-2010 by sitting out the midterms.
He’s unloved in his time, even by his own side, but he’s without question the most effective and influential political figure of our time.