From the moment he made his way down the escalator at Trump Tower and thrust himself into the conversation, Donald Trump has dominated the media’s reporting on American politics. Reporting on the latest misdeeds of Donald Trump has proven to be a full-time job, and criticizing Trump has become de rigueur. And while Trump has certainly done and said plenty to justify the constant media coverage, one problem with the media focusing all of its efforts on investigating and breathlessly reporting Donald Trump and the Terrible, Awful, No-Good, Very Bad Cabinet Appointments is that it inevitably takes focus off of others to whom we really, really should be paying attention.
Like Mitch McConnell.
If you’re unfamiliar with Senator McConnell, let me get you up to speed. McConnell has been in the Senate since 1984, and though he started his career as a more centrist Republican, he has abandoned that tack in recent years, instead adopting far-right positions in order to appease the ever-more-radical elements of his base. (For example, though he initially supported minimum-wage increases and collective bargaining rights, he is now opposed to them.)
Which, look, that’s fine- our current political climate has forced legislators to entertain and pander to more extreme voting blocs in order to keep their seats. I don’t agree with all of McConnell’s policy positions (including his multiple attempts to extend the PATRIOT Act), but that’s more for ideological reasons than anything else. In fact, he’s introduced some bills with which I do agree, such as the Protecting Our Infants Act of 2015, legislation that calls for the study of prenatal opioid use and potential methods to address neonatal abstinence syndrome (essentially, opioid withdrawal symptoms in newborns). And though I may disagree with some of his positions, I certainly don’t fault him for holding them.
What I do fault him for, however, is his record of shameless obstructionism. McConnell has shown a complete unwillingness to make any sort of compromise if the president isn’t a member of his party. His actions (or lack thereof) are not a brave stand against policies that will harm Americans- he’s just gumming up the works for policies that most Americans support, solely for the sake of scoring cheap political points with the Tea Party faction. Worst of all, he’s specifically said so:
“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
–Mitch McConnell, October 2010
McConnell’s stated mission to undermine the Obama administration at every turn included his leading the Republican refusal to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Not because Garland was hyper-liberal, mind you; in fact, of all of the people President Obama could have nominated, Garland was among the most moderate. But McConnell blocked it anyway, leaving the Supreme Court without a Justice who could act as a tiebreaker in the event of a deadlocked decision. His initial reasoning was that we don’t confirm Supreme Court Justices in the final year of a lame-duck presidency (which, yes, we absolutely do); that point was rendered moot a few months later, when McConnell vowed to continue holding up the confirmation process, even if Hillary Clinton won the election. Essentially, he was content for our Supreme Court to exist at less than full strength for as long as it took until a Republican won the White House and would confirm a conservative justice. Of course, now that Trump is in office, McConnell has no problem moving forward with any one of the radical right-wing candidates. Why? Because it’s his turn now.
Another perfect example? The ongoing Cabinet confirmations for the new Trump administration. In 2009, McConnell succeeded in blocking the confirmation of former House Majority Leader Tom Daschle, citing Daschle’s failure to pay back taxes he owed on a car and driver. McConnell then slammed the White House for its quote-unquote lax vetting of Obama’s Cabinet nominees:
“It does raise some questions about the vetting process … I think the administration ought to take a look at its vetting process.”
-Mitch McConnell, 2009
McConnell also sent a letter in 2009 to then-House Majority Leader Harry Reid, outlining the “best practices” for the confirmation process he expected the Senate to follow for President Obama’s nominees:
Seems like sound advice, right? Well, now that Trump is in the White House and has nominated individuals ranging from “woefully unqualified” (Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education pick) to “alarmingly unfit to serve” (Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker and proprietor of a mortgage lender that was fined for its predatory lending and foreclosure tactics), McConnell thinks it would be great if we could all just smile, nod, and rush Trump’s demonstrably worse picks through the confirmation process, thank you very much. In fact, when Democrats asked for more time to review the records of Trump’s nominees (some of whom haven’t even submitted their financial disclosures and Ethics paperwork, which is supposed to happen before any hearings take place), McConnell’s response was — and this is a direct quote — “Grow up.” It’s blatant hypocrisy on McConnell’s part, and what makes it even more grating is the fact that he appears to not care at all how a maneuver like this makes him look. In fact, he seems to relish his role as the villain. (It’s also worth pointing out here that Donald Trump’s nominee for Transportation Secretary is Elaine Chao…also known as Mitch McConnell’s wife. Do with that information what you will.)
When Fox News’ Chris Wallace pointed out McConnell’s hypocrisy between 2009 and 2017, here’s what McConnell had to say for himself:
“Look, you can complain about whatever you choose to. Ultimately, though, the administration decides who to submit and members decide whether these kinds of mistakes that people make from time to time are decisive in determining how they’re going to vote.”
-Mitch McConnell, January 2017
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In his inauguration speech, Donald Trump pointed out the long-running problem people have had with the way politicians in Washington conduct themselves:
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs.
While Trump’s speech was largely a mishmash of ridiculous ideas, empty promises and dire warnings, this section could be read as a repudiation of the tactics that have been most frequently employed by members of his own party; specifically, by McConnell. And though Trump gets nearly everything wrong in his approach to politics, he’s right on this. Successfully blocking any meaningful legislation from getting passed should not be applauded, nor should it be considered a viable strategy to be reused over and over again until you get the results you want.
As I’m sure you’ve heard before, Americans are more sharply politically divided than we have been in any period since the Civil War. And no matter your party affiliation, you have ample media outlets at your disposal to reassure you that your side is the “right” side. People can now effectively tailor the news to their own interests, allowing them to ignore any information that doesn’t align with their world view (which is a topic for another day). But part of government officials’ jobs is to be able to cut through the rhetoric and ignore the hysteria, not give into them. Politicians’ primary focus should be on getting things done through compromise and good-faith efforts, not scoring points with the low-hanging fruit among their constituents by folding their arms and refusing to do their jobs.
And therein lies the root of my disdain for Mitch McConnell. It’s not that he holds different views – if Harry Reid had pulled this when he was the House Majority Leader, I would be writing the same piece with a different subject. No, it’s that McConnell’s stubborn adherence to his views during the Obama administration manifested itself in a complete unwillingness to even try to do his job. McConnell’s antics should not be celebrated by the likes of The Atlantic (a puff piece that stops juuuuust shy of saying look at this character doing what he likes- ain’t he a rascal?!). They should be derided for what they are: a complete abdication of his duty as an elected official to serve all his constituents, not just the ones who voted for him.
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To be clear, this troubling trend doesn’t begin and end with Mitch McConnell. He is not the first politician to employ obstructionism as a legislative strategy (though he is certainly more shameless about it than his predecessors). But his success in employing this strategy means it’s more likely to be repeated down the road, either by him or by someone else.
And that’s a problem, because on a long-enough timeline, our elected officials will eventually simply refuse to participate in the act of governance until the conditions are favorable for them to act. We’ll have a Republican Congress that will do nothing but dig their heels in during a Democratic administration; then, when they regain the presidency, will push through everything they can without input from their colleagues. In response, Democrats will employ the same strategy; laws will be passed and then repealed, legislation will be enacted and then cancelled, progress (in either direction) will be made and then unraveled. The result of these tactics will be a government that ultimately ends up at or near where it started, with a populace that’s at once dubious about our leaders’ ability to get anything done and angry that they aren’t getting what they want. And no matter your party affiliation, we deserve more from the people we put in power.