Surprising almost no one, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that should a Supreme Court vacancy occur during this presidential campaign, he’d allow the Senate to confirm President Trump’s choice.
That seemingly is the opposite position from the one he took in 2016, in the last part of the Obama presidency, when he blocked even the consideration of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court.
In a speech later that year he said: “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.’ ”
You can say and think a lot of things about McConnell, some that are not printable for a family audience, but you can’t call him a hypocrite.
For to be a hypocrite you have to have principles that you betray for the sake of expedience or political advantage. McConnell is not driven by a moral sense of values or a political ideology that can be betrayed. No, McConnell is the leader of the modern Republican Party that believes in only one thing: power for power’s sake.
His turnaround on the Supreme Court nominating issue is only the latest example of the McConnell doctrine. On Tuesday, news reports also had McConnell already lining up support for dismissing any articles of impeachment that might come over from the House–before the Senate ever has any chance to consider them.
Let’s also not forget the bitter arguments advanced by McConnell when in 2013 former Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed the so-called nuclear option for confirming federal judges below the Supreme Court. McConnell was full of moral outrage as he railed against Reid. But when the opportunity came to employ the nuclear option for Supreme Court Justices, McConnell, with a wry smile, did an about-face and changed the Senate rules.
Some blame Reid for what delivered Justice Kavanaugh, who could never have received 60 votes. The reality is that the argument McConnell was making was always disingenuous and driven, again, not by principle, but by the relentless pursuit of power. A principled leader would have undone the work of Reid, not extended it.
I have no doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at McConnell’s rule in the Senate with some sense of admiration. And he should, since according to reports in the Washington Post and elsewhere, McConnell killed any chance of working on Russian interference in on a bipartisan basis before the 2016 election, when something more could have been done about it.
When the decision was protecting democracy from foreign attack or protecting Republican interests, it was apparently an easy decision for the majority leader. His calculation: Power always trumps principle, even if our democracy be damned.
Some argue that other Republicans will face the wrath of Americans if they fall in line with McConnell. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, the current chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that is responsible for the confirmation of Supreme Court judges, had said last fall, that if a vacancy became available during the campaign season, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he would wait until after the election to consider the President’s choice.
A big problem for Sen. Graham? Not at all. For Graham has remade himself from a politician in the mold of the late Sen. John McCain into the most aggressive proponent of the McConnell principle. No one was stronger, as a manager of the House impeachment committee, on the issues of holding Bill Clinton accountable and removing him from office even if a crime had not been committed. Now, as a McConnell Republican, Graham argues there is no reason to hold a President accountable even if a crime has allegedly been committed.
One reason the McConnell principle thrives is there are really no consequences anymore. Some in the media admire his strength and ability to get things done even if those things fly in the face of any previously held position.
Others see Democrats’ clinging to principle as a weakness, aptly described by Ron Klain, former chief of staff to vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, as asymmetrical constitutional warfare. That’s where one side is playing by the rules and the other is making them up as they go along. And there is no doubt the right-wing media machine, anchored by Fox News, provides enormous air cover for the McConnell principle.
But the main reason that principle survives, in my opinion, is the loss of shame in American politics. And that comes from the very top—from President Donald Trump. It used to be that politicians were restrained by the guardrails of political norms, shame being a powerful one. Being called a hypocrite or a flip-flopper had a negative impact at the polls (who can forget John Kerry saying, essentially “I was for that before I was against that,” and a powerful deterrent to irresponsible statements and positions.)
But the lesson learned from the 2016 campaign is there is no penalty for being shameless. Politicians like Trump and McConnell understand the dynamic of short attention spans and a new media environment that can no longer hold politicians to account, despite its best efforts.
To paraphrase Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street, in politics, shame is good, shame works. The rise of Trump and McConnell have driven a stake through the power of shame’s ability to influence a politician – and that is a profound shame.