Mitch McConnell Wasn’t Always Loved by Republicans. He Is Now.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. — How has Mitch McConnell blessed the Republican Party? Let these Kentucky women count the ways.
He refused to hold hearings on Merrick Garland, for one. And he stood by Brett M. Kavanaugh to the end.
But for these seven Republican women, gathered for coffee on a recent Friday, the Senate impeachment trial revealed Mr. McConnell’s leadership as the handiwork of the divine. “I think it was a plan designed only by God that Senator McConnell was put in the position that he is,” said Kathy Stocks, the chairwoman of the Scott County Republican Party.
When Mr. McConnell, the majority leader and Kentucky’s senior senator, secured President Trump’s acquittal on Wednesday, he took to the Senate floor to extol the end of “this precedent-breaking impeachment.” It was a final bow of sorts, the capstone of a yearslong metamorphosis from establishment bore to conservative icon.
Even voters like Ms. Stocks weren’t so sure about Mr. McConnell once upon a time, when Tea Party firebrands tempted them with visions of a new kind of Republican. But that was before the fate of Mr. Trump was at stake, before the fight for acquittal demanded a leader precisely in Mr. McConnell’s mold.
From beginning to end, impeachment has crystallized the symbiosis between the president’s success and Mr. McConnell’s clout. It’s easy to see how the Senate leader has been critical to Mr. Trump’s political survival. Perhaps less obvious, though, is the extent to which Mr. McConnell owes much of his new viability to Mr. Trump — how his brand of staid ruthlessness has thrived as a counterweight to the brash, whim-driven style of the president.
All of the things that once repelled many conservatives about Mr. McConnell have now become the foundations of his appeal. According to the Kentucky women, no longer is the 77-year-old lawmaker past his prime — he is “battle tested.” His likeness — white, wrinkled, expressionless with a dash of smirk — is not the aesthetic of a has-been; it is the portrait of “stability.” And three-plus decades in office? Don’t call him a career politician, just the ideal shepherd for the man who has never done this before.
“He knows that he’s not only representing the country as our Senate majority leader, but he is representing the president of the United States,” Ms. Stocks said. “And he is doing his best to make sure the president is taken care of the way that he should be.”
Kentucky Republicans often discuss the president as if he were a child prodigy — a virtuoso who, for all his “genius” and “creativity,” as one woman here put it, still needs a parent to drive him to the show.
Enter Mitch McConnell. Constituents like Ms. Stocks may grimace at Mr. Trump’s vagaries, the flurry of tweets that, before she turned the notifications off, would often wake her and her husband at 3 a.m. But they find comfort in knowing that when it comes to the president’s actual agenda, Mr. McConnell is behind the wheel.
Basha Roberts, 65, recalled an event in Kentucky after Mr. Trump was elected where she heard Mr. McConnell say, for the first time, “We’re working to make America great again.”
“I knew then that he had bought in,” she said, “and could see all that he could do working with President Trump.”
‘We need someone like Harry Reid’
The way Mr. McConnell complements the president cannot alone explain his now-widespread support in his party — how it is that in the past five years, his approval rating among Republicans nationally has climbed to 68 percent from as low as 26 percent, according to surveys from Gallup and Quinnipiac University.
At no point has Mr. McConnell fundamentally changed. For many Republicans, the difference today is that he is despised by all the right people.
Ms. Roberts recalled watching one of the first Democratic presidential debates and realizing that the candidates had spent more time name-checking Mr. McConnell than they had the president. “I called my husband in and said: ‘Guess what? Senator McConnell is doing everything we want him to do,’” she said. “‘He’s become what they’re attacking!’”
It is difficult to overstate the political currency of being labeled a “fighter.” As Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist, put it, the only thing more universal than a party’s desire for fighters is the belief that only the other side has them. This was particularly true for Republicans in President Barack Obama’s first term, even after they installed John Boehner as speaker.
“At that time, you started to hear grousing about how weak Republicans were, particularly Boehner,” Mr. Donovan said. The prevailing line of thinking, he explained, was that “G.O.P. leadership is always weak, and we need someone like Harry Reid who’s willing to be strong.”
Perhaps no leader in recent memory has haunted the Republican Party quite like Mr. Reid, the Senate majority leader from 2007 to 2015. Here was a man who appeared to heed Mr. Obama’s call during the 2008 election, when he reminded supporters of “the Chicago way,” as immortalized by Jimmy Malone in “The Untouchables”: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”
For Republicans, the assumption of a knife may have seemed generous. Lawmakers like Mr. Boehner rose on the promise of legislative victories, only to have Mr. Reid ensure that most House spending bills never saw the Senate floor. While Republicans did manage to secure the occasional half-loaf, be it an extension of Bush-era tax cuts or the imposition of automatic budget cuts, it was never enough to dispel an underlying sense of futility. As conservatives saw it, government-funding negotiations inevitability ended in spending packages that largely took care of Democratic priorities, coupled with the image of a Republican Party that had yet again capitulated.
All of which may have fueled the party’s deep “resentment” for Mr. Reid and the left writ large, Mr. Donovan has written. But those feelings, he noted, were “often tinged with envy, if not begrudging admiration.”
Indeed, Mr. Reid helped entrench the perception that Democrats were willing to play hardball — and, more important, that they were all willing to play hardball. There were no stragglers, it seemed, in Mr. Reid’s party, no Susan Collinses or Lisa Murkowskis to fret over.
The irony, of course, is that Mr. Reid’s image as a craven conductor was in many ways the product of Mr. McConnell himself, whose relentless use of the filibuster often meant that Mr. Reid had to rely on party-line governance. But it was as if Republicans, in fixating on their opponents, had failed to acknowledge that the ruthlessness they craved in their leaders was already well at work.
Some conservatives still invoke Mr. Reid’s memory in this way. “That’s the problem with the Republican Party, there’s not enough loyalty — Democrats at least have that,” Angela Carr, a 44-year-old Republican from Colorado, said at a recent breakfast hosted by the Denver G.O.P.
“You don’t hear a Democrat is a D.I.N.O.,” or a Democrat in Name Only, she continued. “You hear a Republican is a R.I.N.O.”
A Supreme Court barricade
It was hardly an hour after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death had been confirmed that on Feb. 13, 2016, Mr. McConnell issued his career’s most radioactive pledge yet: The Senate would not confirm a replacement Supreme Court justice until after the 2016 election.
Senate Republicans fell in line. And they stayed there — even after Mr. Obama nominated Mr. Garland, an appellate judge largely viewed as a centrist, and even as polls showed that Democrats were likely to keep the White House. In a speech in Kentucky that August, Mr. McConnell said that “one of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy.’”
Of the nearly two dozen Kentucky Republicans interviewed for this article, each one cited this moment — culminating in Neil M. Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court — as foundational to Mr. McConnell’s now-hallowed place in the party. Yet for all the lionizing of Mr. McConnell as a “statesman,” as a “man of principle,” not one of them seemed bothered by his vow to ignore the so-called Garland rule should a Supreme Court vacancy arise in 2020. In May, when asked how he would proceed in that scenario, Mr. McConnell grinned. “Oh,” he said, “we’d fill it.”
Nick Nash, a 24-year-old “hard-line conservative” who lives in Louisville, was among the unbothered. In his view, Mr. McConnell was simply acting as the “fighter” that the Republican Party had long needed. “The way D.C. is set up now, when you’re in charge, you make the rules,” Mr. Nash said. He shrugged. “I think Harry Reid would have said the exact same thing.”
For Republicans, the Garland example meant that Mr. McConnell’s resolve to confirm Mr. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in October 2018 was not so much exceptional as it was expected. “He was not going to be bullied,” said Dawn Alvarado, 52, a occupational therapist. “And there are so many bullies.”
Many also pointed to Mr. McConnell’s role in confirming federal judges. “Who has ever been able to appoint 187 judges to the federal courts in a president’s one term?” boasted April Hunt of Danville, Ky. Her husband, Howard Hunt, the judge executive of Boyle County, chimed in approvingly: “Nobody.”
Republicans young and old spoke of these judges as the “safeguard for our future.” But young voters also praised their installment as the premise of Mr. McConnell’s growing cultural infamy.
Reclaiming ‘Cocaine Mitch’
On a recent Wednesday evening, Mr. Nash joined three other young Republicans for dinner at an Irish pub in Louisville. They laughed about how Mr. McConnell’s opponents had tried in vain to demonize him. “People” — as in “the left” and “the media” — “put these tags on him and think it’s hurting him, but it’s really only glorifying him,” said Taton Thompson, 30, who is leading the recharter of the Kentucky Young Republicans.
They reveled in their favorite nicknames for Mr. McConnell. There was “Cocaine Mitch,” given to him by a Republican, no less. “Honestly, so many high school and college students thought that was like the coolest thing ever,” said Addison Combs, 20, the chairwoman of the Bellarmine University College Republicans.
And then there was “Moscow Mitch,” popularized by Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the Senate leader blocked election-security legislation, which Mr. McConnell’s team appropriated as a beverage.
“He’s a bro,” Ms. Combs concluded. “He’s a total bro.”
Max Atherton, a 27-year-old finance director at a car dealership, who described himself as a “Brooks Brothers Republican,” echoed as much. “It’s ironic in a way that someone who is over 70 years old has almost kind of injected a bit of youth and jest into the Republican Party,” he said.
This is perhaps the unlikeliest manifestation of Mr. McConnell’s leadership. Sure, the judges appointed during this time will figure prominently for decades to come. But in considering the less quantifiable ways in which the Senate leader has recast his party, one might return to that speech from May, when he said, without pause, that he would fill a Supreme Court vacancy this election year.
Mr. McConnell’s every move then seemed calibrated to enrage his opponents, to inspire some new macabre moniker. The sly grin, the casual sips of water. Yet it is precisely this aura — call it ruthlessness, or shamelessness — that has found purchase among conservatives, particularly young ones. Indeed, when a party’s watchwords are increasingly to “own the libs,” grounded in a cold tally of victories over any discernible ideological framework, it is no wonder Republicans have found their fighter in Mr. McConnell.
“He’s somebody we can look up to,” Mr. Thompson said.
Democrats, of course, believe Mr. McConnell is the exact inverse of a political guidepost. But when the dust of the Trump era settles, and the Senate leader’s legacy becomes clearer, if only on the scoreboard, their voters may decide that his is the model worth following.
In July 2018, Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, was scheduled to have an event in Brooklyn. Travel issues stopped him from showing. His constituents, heat-frazzled and anxious about Mr. Trump’s impending Supreme Court pick, criticized Mr. Schumer when he finally phoned into the venue.
“We are in a gunfight and we have a butter knife,” one person said.
Then another constituent offered a complaint that, as recently as five years ago, Republicans probably never imagined they would hear: “You’ve not played to win like Mitch McConnell has.”
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