Editor’s note: Scott Jennings, a senior CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, was a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. view more opinion on CNN.
On Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will become the longest-serving party leader in Senate history, overtaking the late Mike Mansfield of Montana, who was Democrat leader from 1961 to 1977.
McConnell’s most recent term as head of the Senate GOP conference was won by a vote of 37 to 10, a sustained display of political dominance that’s fairly unusual in Washington today.
I’ve known McConnell for over 25 years, worked for him and most recently observed him as a political analyst. His ability to maintain his leadership position in a party that has undergone such tumultuous changes is fascinating. Many politicians have come and gone during his tenure, while others whirl like weathervanes in a vain attempt to keep up.
But the stoic and understated McConnell changes little, which frustrates his enemies, let alone more than a few of his fellow Republicans and the reporters tasked with covering our democracy.
I’ve often heard McConnell say that when he took office in January 1985, he would peer over his desk from a dark corner of the Senate and think, “None of these people are ever going to die, resign, or be beaten.” He often wondered if his tenure would be lasting and consistent, or a short-lived excursion in the back seat.
Indeed, McConnell has become one of the most momentous political figures in American history. His longevity and ability to do business draw comparisons to his idol, Henry Clay, a native Kentucky who served as US Senator, Speaker of the House and Secretary of State.
Unlike Clay, however, McConnell never longed for the presidency. Rather, he set out to master the largest advisory body in the world. Rising from the back row, McConnell built a reputation as a street fighter and skilled operator. He won two hard-fought re-elections in 1990 and 1996 (Kentucky was still a blue state then) and then worked his way up to Republican leader in January 2007 after serving as campaign manager and conference chair for the Senate GOP.
McConnell’s first and most recent elections for party chairman both came at moments of turmoil for the GOP. He rose to the top spot 16 years ago after Republicans suffered a “hammer” in what then-President George W. Bush put it in the 2006 midterm elections.
And in 2022, Republicans failed to regain a majority as Senate Democrats rode former President Donald Trump’s bizarre coattails to snatch a seat, relegating avid soccer fan McConnell to another term when: in the words of the GOP leader, “defensive coordinator.”
McConnell never had it easy. Of his 16 years as Republican leader, two came under a lame Bush, four under an unpredictable Trump, and the rest under Democratic Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. He never had more than 54 Republicans (and only 40) during his tenure, while the previous record-holder Mansfield never had fewer than 54 Democrats and usually well over 60, the Senate’s magic number for establishing complete political power.
What McConnell has achieved, he has done on slim margins and often from a politically weak position. He makes gains for his party where he can (the recent omnibus spending bill led to massive increases in defense spending, for example), but never lets his partisanship or ideology outweigh his responsibilities in government.
His working protocol is to achieve the most conservative legislative outcome under the circumstances, a strategy that has smashed headlong into his party’s strident revolutionaries, who favor no outcomes beyond getting the next cable TV booking.
McConnell elicits hate from his political opponents because they rarely get the best out of him. Many Kentucky Democrats hated him at first after failing to oust him seven times.
Next came a series from the political press. Watching McConnell, his efforts to halt campaign finance reform and his unwillingness to grapple with journalists in congressional corridors seemed to put some reporters off.
Washington Democrats are not to be outdone. Her resentment that McConnell secured three Supreme Court seats during Trump’s tenure serves as an eternal flame of anger to light her party’s path, not to mention her frustration that he’s using Senate rules to do so thwart parts of their agenda.
For many Democrats, it’s particularly galling that McConnell is keeping Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat open in 2016, but filling Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat in 2020, even though both Supreme Court positions will become vacant during the presidential campaign. McConnell made a distinction as to whether the government was divided at the time (it was 2016 but not 2020); Of course not the Democrats. In any case, these decisions were among the most consequential decisions of McConnell’s career.
Lately, the populist right has sided with McConnell, accusing him of not wanting to win Midterms 2022. Groups associated with McConnell were on track to raise and spend more than $380 million just before the election. By comparison, Trump spent around $20 million from his personal war chest, despite having much more in the bank and playing a large role in determining the GOP’s general election list. That criticism must make for a hilarious joke in the Democrats’ wardrobe.
Trump is upset with McConnell for not joining the former president’s election denial, making hateful statements about him and launching a racist tirade against his wife Elaine Chao, who was Secretary of Transportation in Trump’s cabinet.
McConnell refuses to answer, apparently because he understands the adage about the futility of pigs wrestling in the mud — and perhaps because he takes a certain pleasure in ignoring such a self-absorbed narcissist.
Depending on who you ask, McConnell is either too conservative, too liberal, too partisan, or not partisan enough. Since McConnell became president, the sands of politics have washed in and out with the tide, but only our perspective has changed. McConnell hasn’t moved much at all. He’s not a showman, and media criticism doesn’t bother him much. For some, this makes him unfit for politics in this performative age.
But to this observer, it seems that our democracy needs at least some strong trees whose roots run deeper than the latest ideological fads or conspiracy theories.
It was inevitable that an institution and an institutionalist like McConnell would eventually become the object of contempt for the burn-it-all-down populists wielding increasing influence in American politics. A recent poll analysis published in The Washington Post found that “since 2018, Republicans have lost confidence in every institution we asked about but one: the local police force. …”
But McConnell firmly believes in two things: the role of strong institutions in our society and that America, civil and military, is a force for good in the world.
While Trump and his offshoots thrive on weak institutions and the utopian promises of isolationism, historically America has not. In their view, the US cannot be strong at home if it pursues policies that make it strong abroad.
“From this false perspective, courage and compassion are polar opposites,” McConnell said in a speech to the US Global Leadership Coalition in December. “They see strength and likeability as opposite ends of a spectrum. From this perspective, hard power and soft power are rivals, and prioritizing our interests is mutually exclusive with prioritizing our values.
“But here’s the good news: All of American history tells us that’s dead wrong.”
This unfolding struggle in the Republican Party may define the final chapter of McConnell’s long career as GOP leader. Will Trump return? Will the GOP succumb to isolationism and the mistaken notion that America can only walk or chew gum, but certainly not both at the same time?
As that debate rages on over the course of an upcoming presidential primary, McConnell certainly has no intention of changing or going anywhere. He has four years left in his current Senate term and he has seemed to me in recent talks as committed and determined as ever to advance his worldview.
McConnell’s battle with Florida Sen. Rick Scott for the GOP conference leadership position revived him, and his recent public statements show an intention to return a winning stance to a party that hasn’t gained much at all recently.