Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 29 February 2024



Opinion | We’ll Miss Mitch McConnell

Feb. 29, 2024 1:21 pm ET

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) walks off the Senate floor at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 28. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

A man on CNN is reporting live from outside a polling place in suburban South Carolina and recounts a small story. An 18-year-old man had just voted, and the election clerk called out, “Ladies and gentlemen we have a first-time voter.” The room burst into applause. “They say that’s a tradition here,” the reporter said. It touched me.

All the networks had been showing all these normal Americans who showed up to vote, the people who make the country work, and interviewing them on the way in and out. “I voted for Trump because . . .” “I’m for Haley.” All of them patient and good-natured with the media folk. I thought, not for the first time, that America has become an 80/20 country, with 80% so sterling and responsible and constructive, taking part, keeping the whole edifice up and operating, of all faiths, colors and persuasions. But we only pay attention to the 20% because they make all the news—outrageousness of every sort, hurting people on the street or making threats on TikTok or acting out in every field, including politics, in some ignorant way.

The 80% never make news because they’re modestly doing what’s expected. But we should never forget who we are, a good people, and by an overwhelming majority. That gets drowned out in the daily drumbeat.

On the evening of his South Carolina triumph, Donald Trump said of the Republican Party: “I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now.” It isn’t a united party but one broken in two, with one half bigger than the other. Mr. Trump won South Carolina roughly 60/40 and that is a win, a big one, a landslide. But as Nikki Haley said, speaking after him that evening, “40% is not some tiny group.” Especially when you consider that South Carolina Republicans are pretty Trumpy. Forty percent of voters not desiring his return is a big deal. The South Carolina outcome mirrored New Hampshire, but Michigan this week was different, a bigger and more decisive split for Trump, roughly 70/30. But still a split.

Eight years ago the Trump part of the party was a small minority, though one that in the end triumphed. Now the non-Trump part is a rump.

When a party is broken both sides get to speak of why they’re right and the other side’s wrong. That is why it is legitimate and constructive—it is a very 80% move!—for Ms. Haley to stay in and argue against Mr. Trump and his policies. This is right, helpful and clarifying. Mr. Trump tends to avoid this, or rather to do half, the part about why he’s the right person. He doesn’t much address his own policies, or explain why Ms. Haley is wrong in hers. But he owes it to the country. Is he capable of engaging on issues? Is he too old, too scattered and unfocused?

Some say Ms. Haley should get out now to preserve her viability for 2028. This is fantasy. She is taking on the more-than-half part of her party now and alienating them every day. They won’t forget it. In any case, future presidential cycles aren’t at all predictable or plannable. Everything changes; people will enter whose names we don’t know. If Ms. Haley has a presidential future it will more likely be with a third party. For now she is doing an authentic public service in bearing a standard and explaining why it must be borne, and that is enough.

Next week is Super Tuesday, when certain overwhelming trends, if they continue, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t, will produce the expected outcome: a Trump-Biden race, a repeat of 2020, even though no sane person would want to return to that dreadful year.

Meanwhile, for eight years normal, old-style Republicans—normal and old-style not only in policy but in terms of personal and professional seriousness—have been saying: We can’t win without the Trumpers. It has yet to dawn on the Trumpers that they need the normal, old-style Republicans, too. They were alerted to this in the elections of 2018, 2020 and 2022, but the lesson didn’t take. At some point in the future it must. Trumpism is by nature triumphalist: We are the unstoppable wave. But that wave broke in ’18, ’20 and ’22 on the rocks of the normal, old-style Republicans who ringed the shore. They may well break it again, in November. This hasn’t moderated Mr. Trump’s approach.

We close with Mitch McConnell. On hearing of his decision to step down in November as GOP Senate leader, I thought what I have been thinking for some time as various House veterans, and serious younger members, have stepped down: The doctors are fleeing the asylum.

Age and a recent family loss, the death of his sister-in-law Angela Chao, played into the decision, but so surely did the current moment. Mr. McConnell entered the Senate in 1984, and became Republican leader 2007. He came up in one party, during the Reagan revolution, and a different one has risen since.

As leader, Mr. McConnell was subtle, saw around corners, never lost his head, skillfully herded some highly unusual cats. He wasn’t a visionary but kept in his mind the big picture and played a long game. Politics to him was the art of the possible; he respected the mathematics of the situation. I suspect the political regret of his life was his decision not to back Donald Trump’s second impeachment, after 1/6. It would be a right regret.

Democrats in the Senate knew him as a formidable foe; when he blocked the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016, he sent them into a blazing rage. They painted him in return as a great villain, understandably, and as he knew they would. The break never fully healed. Yet to the extent the Senate as an institution still holds, Mr. McConnell is a primary reason. His Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, looked honestly moved as, at the end of Mr. McConnell’s remarks announcing his decision, in the well of the Senate, he crossed the aisle to take Mr. McConnell’s hand.

His remarks were moving, and there was throughout an air of gallantry. He quoted Ecclesiastes: To everything there is a season. He said: “One of life’s most underappreciated talents is to know when it’s time to leave.” Would that others heeded his example.

“I said exactly what I felt,” he said afterward by phone. “The reaction has been surprising and rather heartwarming, and I wasn’t sure that would be the case.” A historian of the Senate wrote that he had not only been the longest serving party leader in the Senate; he had been the best. When I mentioned Mr. Schumer, Mr. McConnell said their “shared passion” on Ukraine had brought them closer.

He was one of the last grown-ups. Trump people will jeer him—“Another head we’ve cut off.” They couldn’t carry his sandals.

He will remain in the Senate and, liberated from the constraints of leadership, no doubt feel free to be a thorn in the side of irresponsible presidential and party leadership. Something tells me in this area he’ll make John McCain look like a piker.

Wonder Land: To most voters, what happens in Washington has become an incomprehensible blur. What makes Donald Trump think he can fix it? Images: Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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