Op-Ed

All hail Mitch McConnell: The Great Delegitimizer

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received applause Monday as President Donald Trump spoke before Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was ceremonially sworn in the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received applause Monday as President Donald Trump spoke before Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was ceremonially sworn in the White House. The New York Times

It takes no prophet to predict that posterity will judge that Mitch McConnell has done greater damage to the fundamental institutions of our democracy than any other leader in the history of the Senate.

The unseemly haste, secrecy and raw partisanship with which he “plowed through” the degrading confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh is but the latest affront to democracy that McConnell has mounted since he rose to a leadership position in the Senate.

Those assaults have had grave consequences calling into question the very legitimacy of these institutions.

McConnell has been recently described as “wily” for his ploys in advancing Republican interests. As wily as a termite eating away at the foundations of our republic.

As minority leader, McConnell adopted the totally partisan stance of obstructing every initiative that President Barack Obama took in order to make him, in McConnell’s famous vow, “a one-term president.”

The common good and the needs of the country, no matter how vital, counted not at all to McConnell.

He made the filibuster — the tactic requiring 60 affirmative votes for passage of legislation or confirmation of nominations — routine in passing major legislation, thereby assuring minority rule in the body.

If Henry Clay, McConnell’s distinguished Kentucky predecessor in the Senate, was rightly known as “The Great Compromiser,” McConnell has even greater claim to being known as “The Great Obstructor.”

But an even more fitting title for McConnell is “The Great Delegitimizer.” For not only has he delegitimized the Senate by rendering it an utterly dysfunctional body, but he has been a major contributor to the delegitimization of our electoral system as well as to that of the courts, especially the Supreme Court.

In his professional political life, McConnell early on realized the centrality of money in the winning of campaigns. He also knew all too well the conservative, indeed reactionary policy positions that would have the best appeal to the monied class whose contributions dominate campaign funding.

So McConnell quickly shed his early flirtation with liberal positions on abortion and labor rights and regarded any attempts to limit campaign financing as serious threats to his political career.

His long campaign to promote money as speech culminated in Citizens United. When Senate legislation was proposed to at least reveal the identities of donors, McConnell argued that money, as speech, needed to remain “dark” for the security of the one providing the “speech.”

Nothing has been more corrupting of our political life than this opening of the floodgates of private money into the electoral process. It has amounted to bribery on a nationwide scale. The very legitimacy of our elected officials has come into serious doubt as a consequence.

Finally there is McConnell and the Supreme Court. The crucial obstruction here was McConnell’s brazen defiance of Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, a moderate jurist to whom Obama naively thought McConnell might give a hearing.

McConnell effectively stole the seat by sitting on the nomination for over a year, claiming that the voice of the American people needed to be heard on the matter. He did not feel it necessary to cite where in the Constitution the majority leader of the Senate was given the power to determine what nominee would get its advice and consent.

But wily McConnell was definitely appealing to the stalwarts of the culture wars, to get to the polls to ensure a Republican president would get to make the nomination — even when that president turned out to be the loathsome Donald Trump.

And so we have Neil Gorsuch, and now Kavanaugh as justices. And the only losers in this disastrous development are the majority of the electorate who will bear the burden of their decisions, as well as the court itself.

The court’s increasingly partisan activity over the past two decades has provided ample evidence of its loss of legitimacy. The addition of another Republican apparatchik, one indelibly tainted by lying, reckless partisanship, and credible accusations of sexual predation, is a stark confirmation of that loss.

For all of this, we are particularly indebted to McConnell.

Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University.

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