Mitch McConnell has been a member of the U.S. Senate for a third of a century. And for a third of that time, he’s been the Republican leader in the upper chamber. A lot’s gone down during that time, and as a natural power broker (his idol is the great deal-maker from Kentucky, Henry Clay) McConnell has been in the thick of many a consequential development.
So when he was asked by a Kentucky interviewer about the his biggest accomplishment as a senator, a number of possibilities might have come to mind. There was his career-long fight against campaign-finance reform, culminating in the legal battle that led to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. There was his famous strategic plan to make total obstruction of Barack Obama, rather than any positive agenda, the focal point for Senate Republicans, which contributed to the poisonous atmosphere that eventually produced President Trump. And speaking of Trump, there was McConnell’s refusal to go along with Obama’s request for a bipartisan warning about Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, which could well have headed off some very damaging publicity for the GOP candidate. Most recently, McConnell shepherded a tax-cut bill through the Senate, which is always a big, big deal for any Republican.
For a purely political animal like McConnell, he might well think it a major accomplishment that he’s managed to win six straight Senate elections in Kentucky, despite steadily growing unpopularity back home and opposition from both Democrats and GOP conservatives. His 2014 reelection, which included a surprisingly easy primary win over conservative ideologue Matt Bevin, who was subsequently elected governor, was especially impressive.
But no: McConnell says “the decision I made not to fill the Supreme Court vacancy when Justice Scalia died was the most consequential decision I’ve made in my entire public career.” It was certainly unprecedented and audacious. And it arguably had a decisive impact on the presidential contest, as conservatives skeptical toward or even hostile to Trump came around because of his credible promise to replace Scalia with another conservative Justice. Without a Supreme Court opening at stake, it’s unlikely the overwhelming support Trump received from conservative Evangelical leaders would have been quite so overwhelming.
Now McConnell may be emphasizing this issue at the moment because maintaining the ability to confirm judges is an important talking point among conservatives for kicking out the jams and keeping the Senate Republican this November. But more generally, the wily old wire-puller surely understands that his ability to deliver judicial confirmations, particularly for SCOTUS, may be the best reason members of his party’s dominant conservative wing continue to put up with him.
McConnell famously doesn’t see eye to eye with Donald Trump on a whole lot of things. But in this one respect, they’re totally in sync: Judges are the best bait to keep hard-core conservatives in the party harness. And for a broad swath of them, from anti-abortion activists to anti-regulatory warriors to gun nuts to advocates for unlimited money in politics, SCOTUS is the ball game.