After a second on-camera “episode” in which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed unable to answer questions or even speak, it’s obviously time to contemplate the approaching end of the 81-year-old Kentuckian’s long reign as his party’s leader in the upper chamber and consider what will happen next.
You don’t have to get all maudlin about McConnell’s supposed representation of bygone Senate traditions (I personally think he’s an amoral pursuer of power for its own sake) to marvel at his longevity at the helm of his party conference. When McConnell became leader in 2007, the party of Ronald Reagan was still in place; it had not yet been shaken by the tea-party movement or shattered by Donald Trump’s triumph over a Republican Establishment of which McConnell was an integral part. Republicans of that era were still fiercely defending George W. Bush’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq and (by and large) supporting “amnesty” for many millions of undocumented immigrants.
McConnell not only survived the MAGA revolution but negotiated an uneasy peace with Donald Trump, successfully convincing the mercurial president to give his kind of Republicans the tax-cut legislation they valued above all things. And most remarkably, McConnell managed two successful wins for Trump in impeachment trials, even as his own relationship with the 45th president deteriorated into chronic exchanges of insults.
Now McConnell’s hold on the Senate GOP is the fulcrum on which a divided government depends for its rare but essential legislative viability. He’s the often silent partner with the White House and Senate Democrats in figuring out how to cut deals with or overcome a House Republican conference in the firm grip of MAGA fanatics.
If McConnell’s health forces him from his position, will that change?
Let’s say McConnell gives up the gig in the current Congress. He would be succeeded as minority leader by one of the “three Johns”: Cornyn, Thune, or Barrasso. All of them have been loyal McConnell allies who have had to make their own peace with the MAGA majority of the Republican Party at large. All of them understand their conference’s role in keeping the federal government open and the Senate itself functioning. And presumably, all of them are capable of keeping the money machine McConnell helped build for Republican Senate candidates humming through another election cycle (one in which Republicans expect to win back the majority they lost in 2021).
But it’s unclear that any likely McConnell successor will have the influence and authority to keep Senate Republicans together if the 2024 presidential election devolves into another contested result surrounded by threats of violence. And if Donald Trump does return to the White House, it’s even more unlikely that anyone other than the McConnell himself can resist or even temper Trump’s destructive plans for a second term. After all, in that scenario, the old Republican Party would be as dead as McConnell’s own career, and its surviving elements will have surely surrendered to the inevitable demands of a radical “populist” agenda. Perhaps MAGA-adjacent rebel senators like Rick Scott, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and J.D. Vance will move to formally take over the hollow shell of leadership left by McConnell’s retirement, or perhaps the “Johns” and their allies will simply do as they are told with even less complaining than McConnell offered.
It’s possible, of course, that even as McConnell shuffles off into the sunset, Trump will be thoroughly humiliated by voters, making another effort to overturn the results impractical, or even incarcerated by jurors and judges. In that case, the GOP will face an entirely uncertain future, with its congressional wing at sea as much as its frustrated base.
The one thing we know for sure is that the Republican Party that lifted Mitch McConnell to power is gone for good, and with it, more likely than not, the prospect of any Senate leader who can square so many circles and embody so many contradictions as this self-described heir to the great Kentucky schemer Henry Clay. In his absence, the odds are high that the Senate GOP will become as fractious and irresponsible as its counterparts in the House. And no matter who holds the balance of power, that’s not good for democracy and stable governance. McConnell may be an inveterate scoundrel, but he’s been the scoundrel who helped make Washington minimally functional.
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