President Joe Biden was asked on Monday whether there was a reasonable chance that Republicans would find a way to compromise with Democrats on gun control legislation in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
“I think there’s a realization on the part of rational Republicans – and I consider [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell a rational Republican, [Texas Sen. John] Cornyn as well – there’s a recognition on their part they can’t continue like this,” Biden responded.
Which raises an interesting question: Is Biden right? Is McConnell part of the “rational” Republican wing of the party?
To answer that question, you have to first decide this: What does Biden mean by “rational”? Since he didn’t explain, we have to infer. And my inference is that Biden defines rational as a) willing to break from Donald Trump and b) willing to compromise when compromise is available.
So, using that definition, let’s see how McConnell fits into the “rational” category.
According to FiveThirtyEight, McConnell voted with Trump’s position 91.4% of the time when he was president. That made McConnell the 18th most Trump-y senator – tied with South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in Senate leadership, and narrowly more Trump-y than senators like Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn and Arkansas’ Tom Cotton.
That finding may be slightly misleading, of course, because as Senate GOP leader, McConnell viewed his job, at least partly, as getting the Trump agenda through Congress. And as leader, he had some amount of influence over what the Trump agenda would look like.
On other measures of conservatism, McConnell scored lower. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, McConnell has a 63% lifetime rating (and a 69% rating in the current session of Congress). The average score for a Republican senator is 81%. The Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative organization, gives McConnell a lifetime score of 74% – the 21st highest among Republican senators.
(It’s worth noting here that there needs to be a distinction between a willingness to support Trump’s agenda and broader measurements of conservatism. Trumpism does not necessarily equal conservatism.)
On guns in particular, McConnell’s record is less mixed. He has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, which noted in a 2014 campaign that the Kentucky Republican “has stood up to every attempt by President Obama, Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg and other anti-gun extremists to degrade and erode our Second Amendment rights and hunting heritage.”
Numbers aside, it is true that McConnell has shown a willingness to criticize Trump. In the wake of the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol, McConnell said that Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
But it is also true that McConnell’s speech came AFTER he had voted against convicting Trump in the Senate’s impeachment trial.
What Biden ultimately means in describing McConnell (and Cornyn) as “rational” Republicans is that he believes they are open to a deal. Remember that Biden, as vice president, personally negotiated deals with McConnell to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debts in 2011 and falling off the fiscal cliff in 2013.
“You’ve been a real friend, you’ve been a trusted partner, and it’s been an honor to serve with you,” McConnell said of Biden on the Senate floor in the final days of the Obama presidency in 2016. “We’re all going to miss you.”
As I wrote last week, the most important thing to remember when seeking to understand McConnell is that he is always considering the politics of every situation. That’s especially true now, with the 2022 midterm elections rapidly approaching and the Senate majority very much in play.
If McConnell believes that the public at large wants some action on guns, he will work with Cornyn and Democratic leaders to find areas of agreement. If the desire for action fades in the wake of Uvalde, it’s possible that McConnell will pull back on his willingness for Republicans to find some sort of compromise on guns.
Given that, the best way to understand McConnell isn’t on a rational/irrational spectrum. Instead, it’s on whether a particular issue is politically advantageous for him and his side, or not.