“Let’s keep it going” is an apt slogan for Mitch McConnell’s 2020 Senate reelection campaign, given that retaining power is the only principle that anyone seems able to convincingly attribute to him. In an essay published in March by The New Republic, Alex Pareene makes a compelling case that efforts to decipher whatever grander vision motivates the Kentuckian — whether it be a commitment to conservative ideology, the survival of the Republican Party, or something else — are overthinking the matter. In McConnell’s case, Pareene argues, principle is a cover, and the GOP a vehicle, for a deceptively simple agenda: His desire to be Senate majority leader, and to enhance the financial benefits for donors and supporters who help him do so. “McConnell is the great avatar of the decades-long enclosure of our public life by money,” Pareene writes. “In Mitchworld, you simply pay — and pay, and pay — to play.”
If this is correct, the argument follows that, having accomplished his goal 12 years ago, Leader McConnell’s conduct thereafter has been unmoored from any obligation to oversee a functioning government, or a government whose actions reflect the will of most Americans, unless doing so served his ambitions. But where some might consider this a liability come election season, the senator has functionally made it the theme of his first 2020 campaign advertisement. The video, released on Wednesday, begins in March 2016, with President Obama pleading with Senate Republicans to hold hearings and vote on the confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. McConnell refused at the time, holding the seat open in the off chance that the November election gifted him a Republican president. “Let’s let the American people decide,” McConnell says in a voiceover in the video. “Who will Americans trust to nominate the next Supreme Court justice?”
Trump’s victory and the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy paved the way for not one but two conservative Supreme Court nominees: Neil Gorsuch, who was confirmed with relatively little fanfare; and Brett Kavanaugh, around whom McConnell and his fellow Senate Republicans had to stubbornly close ranks amid credible — and publicly galvanizing — allegations that he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when both were in high school. He, too, now sits on the Court. “The American people decided they wanted Donald Trump to make the [nominations], not Hillary Clinton,” McConnell claims in the ad, which intercuts the drama around his SCOTUS debacles with footage of the president praising him as “powerful” and “rock-ribbed.”
The entire video is awash in irony. Its first half is dedicated to McConnell’s various perversions of the Supreme Court confirmation process and record-paced confirmations of district-court judges, while the latter half showcases two pillars of the GOP agenda since 2017: growing the economy and overhauling the tax code. (A brief nod is made also to the passage of a Farm Bill — which happens every five years — that legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp.) The economic upturn that began during the Obama presidency and continues today is welcomed by many. But the tax bill — which disproportionately benefited wealthy Americans and corporations — is broadly unpopular, according to recent Gallup polling, which found that 49 percent of Americans disapprove of it compared to 40 percent who approve. This is indicative of a bigger thread that runs throughout McConnell’s ad: The recasting of maligned and brazenly partisan Republican behavior as the will of the American people, even when it is demonstrably not.
Indeed, the majority of Americans dislike the Republican tax overhaul. The majority of Americans did not elect Donald Trump. (He won the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes.) Consequently, the majority of Americans did not want Trump selecting a Supreme Court nominee, then or perhaps ever. And even if they had, the same logic that McConnell used to justify the president doing so dictates that — having elected and then reelected Obama — most Americans actually wanted Trump’s Democratic predecessor to nominate a justice who would fill the late Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat in 2016. That Obama actually did make such a nomination, and McConnell refused to even grant Merrick Garland a single hearing, let alone a confirmation vote, indicates a deep lack of interest on his part in the popular will that he invokes so self-righteously in his ad. That he advertises his 2016 gambit regardless suggests that “the people” whose will he is purportedly enforcing comprise a much smaller subset of voters that the term “American people” accurately describes. Not coincidentally, McConnell himself is one of them.
None of this is surprising, though its shamelessness is disorienting. But if Pareene is correct — that the Kentuckian is “a man of pure ambition and little else” — then it makes a perverse sort of sense. If Kentucky voters want more of the same, it is to their detriment, assuming they value democracy. (McConnell’s Kentucky approval rating as of February is 33 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey; he won his 2014 reelection by 16 points, and no clear Democratic challenger is waiting in the wings.) But it is great news for Mitch McConnell. And really, is that not the point?