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Mitch McConnell’s Entire Legacy Is ‘Misunderstanding Politics’

Mitch McConnell was correct in saying he has many faults. Misunderstanding politics was perhaps the worst of them.


“I have many faults,” intoned Mitch McConnell after announcing he would be surrendering his leadership of the Senate GOP at the end of the 2024 term. “Misunderstanding politics is not one of them.”

That McConnell would provide this assessment of his own career was predictable. He was just echoing the take of the average GOP establishment politician or D.C. operative. He was also completely wrong. 

In fact, throughout his career, few people understood politics more poorly, and of the many flaws he had as a leader, his misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of politics was perhaps his worst. 

Start with the fact that he had an incredible 6 percent (not a misprint) approval rating and 60 percent disapproval among American adults in a recent poll from respected pollster Monmouth (even among GOP voters, he was at just 10 percent approval!) Even politicians who have committed sex offenses have polled better. But while these ratings were particularly anemic even for McConnell, voters’ disregard of McConnell was par for the course. For years, even among the raft of unpopular GOP politicians, McConnell stood out as the most unpopular major political figure in America.

“Oh,” McConnell’s defenders would always say. “You don’t understand. He’s a master of Senate procedure.” These people seem to think that this skill, important though it is, is somehow what “understanding politics” entails. They could not be more wrong. 

McConnell is great at counting votes, seeing what egos need massaging, making the threats he needs to make, etc. These are very useful skills for climbing the greasy pole in D.C. — and for a party whip whose job it is to wrangle votes — but they are not the primary skills needed for a party leader who sets the agenda. McConnell could have been a very useful cog in a machine led by a strong majority leader who would have set the ideological tone for the party in alignment with the voters and then relied on someone like McConnell to twist the arms to get the votes to execute that vision. But we never had that. Instead, we had almost two decades of “leadership” from an antiquated backroom pol who almost never delivered on his voters’ priorities. 

Whether the issue was Ukraine, immigration, or budgetary discipline, McConnell continually aided and abetted the Democrats at the expense of his own voters. The donor class got taken care of to a degree. But there was nothing left for the nation. 

McConnell fancied himself a fiscal and military conservative. Yet in 17 years as GOP leader, the debt rose from some $9 trillion to $34 trillion. He failed to shepherd a single GOP alternative to Obamacare, the greatest expansion of the welfare state in decades, despite having years to do so, nor was he capable of creating GOP legislation on other key policy priorities. He was a leading supporter of America’s disastrous intervention in Iraq and an enabler of its unfocused, endless military adventurism in Afghanistan. 

Judging him by his own claimed values, has America’s “global leadership” strengthened under McConnell? Is our party strengthened? Just one GOP president was elected during McConnell’s tenure, and it was a man McConnell opposed at every turn. If that’s success in politics, I’d hate to see failure. 

McConnell had certain base cunning and procedural skills, but contrary to his establishment apologists, these do not political leadership make. Without the help of the regime media to amplify our message, it is particularly essential for the GOP leader to be a skilled communicator. One who can make sure the issues we want to talk about, rather than those our opponents want to talk about, are driving the agenda. In a 24/7/365 media environment, McConnell’s utter colorlessness and failure to articulate conservative principles was a disqualifying flaw. 

McConnell often complained about the “crazy” candidates he had to deal with running for the Senate. But in deciding to regularly wage war on the conservative grassroots and lose the trust of Republican voters, he was, more than anyone, responsible for the emergence of those “crazy” candidates. As my old boss, the late Secretary of State George Shultz, was fond of saying, “When there is trust in the room, good things happen. When there is no trust in the room, good things do not happen. Everything else is details.” 

When McConnell interacted with the GOP grassroots, there was never trust in the room, and the blame for that lies squarely on his shoulders. Indeed the Tea Party revolution of 2010, which birthed a number of the biggest GOP stars today, directly grew out of McConnell’s failures, and he opposed it at every turn. He has misread the political mood of the country and GOP voters since before the Tea Party and continuing through the Trump and Biden administrations. 

And because McConnell also failed to build trust with President Trump, he was in no position to intercede when Trump pushed less ideal Senate candidates. With no understanding of the issues that motivated GOP voters and no relationship with the party leader, McConnell was unable to be a Senate candidate kingmaker. And while it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss it in detail, the notion that grassroots candidates tended to be political losers (despite this mantra being endlessly repeated by D.C. establishment Republicans) is not well supported by empirical evidence. 

By contrast, Steve Daines, the senator from my state of Montana running the Republican senatorial effort this election cycle, has successfully worked in tandem with Senate leadership and President Trump without alienating the grassroots. Daines was able to put up a set of candidates that, taken as a group, were largely acceptable to all wings of the party. Sometimes that meant getting behind more establishment-oriented candidates, and sometimes it meant going with grassroots favorites like Jim Banks or Kari Lake. Nobody got everything they wanted, but everybody got something they wanted. To do this is actually understanding politics — and McConnell was incapable of it. 

“But judges!” McConnell’s defenders cry. But while his opposition to Merrick Garland was perhaps the one out-of-the-box political act for which he deserves genuine credit in his many years as leader, it does not overcome a 17-year legacy of failure. McConnell was not able to build a durable majority to more easily confirm judges because of his own failures in recruitment and vision. A RINO such as Murkowski, whom McConnell got such credit for shepherding on key votes, was only in office because McConnell had personally saved her campaign from a conservative grassroots challenge.

A true leader who understands politics is someone who understands his voters’ priorities and then maneuvers electorally at the ballot box and within his party caucus to deliver on those priorities. That is the exact opposite of Mitch McConnell’s legacy. The people he represents, the nation, and the GOP are all weaker because of his “leadership.” The GOP will pick a new leader, and we can only pray he doesn’t even vaguely resemble McConnell.

Mitch McConnell was correct in saying he has many faults. Misunderstanding politics was perhaps the worst of them.

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