It’s not that McConnell has been a failure as a leader, nor that any Republican in the Senate has shown greater tactical acumen. That’s why he will be leader again for the next two years — and not undeservedly so.
But by the end of 2024, he will have been his party’s Senate leader for 18 consecutive years, and he will be just shy of 83 years old. While the idea of “new blood” for the sake of new blood isn’t necessarily wise, there clearly is a point at which once-wise habits can become hidebound, at which point new approaches need exploring and certainly at which somewhat-more-youthful energy can be salutary.
To his credit, McConnell is an expert at Senate procedure and can be a wily and effective tactician. Even most of his right-wing critics credit him for helping engineer a largely conservative judiciary by holding his caucus together on judicial nominations and by blocking former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. Few senators are as adept as McConnell at bird-dogging the administrative state and frustrating the worst of the Left’s attempts at bureaucratic mischief or legerdemain.
McConnell’s aims are also usually solidly conservative, although right-wingers intent on short-term “wins” sometimes don’t see the big picture the way he does. Moreover, while he did a great job focusing on conservative judges in the second decade of this century, he frustrated conservative efforts in 2007-08 to make judicial nominations a high-profile battle because, back then, he didn’t realize that nomination fights were a political winner for the Right.
Sometimes, to be sure, McConnell doesn’t “go to the mat” when critics reasonably think he should. Conservative columnist Deroy Murdock for years has been assiduous at noting when McConnell’s failure to be creatively pugilistic has been baffling, including in the most recent passage of a “temporary” spending bill.
It also is at least arguable that a little more hardball from McConnell in 2009, who did fight hard but absolutely did not use every trick in the bag of parliamentary procedure, could have stopped Obamacare from passing. It’s a complicated story, with several “what-ifs,” but some of us forever will believe McConnell lost a winnable battle there.
McConnell also has thrown his weight around in intra-party battles in ways that proved almost tragically counterproductive. His operatives, for example, threatened permanent blackball status for any candidates or consultants who dared work against his choice of the ethically compromised, appointed Republican senator from Alabama, Luther Strange. The machinations resulted in the even more problematic Judge Roy Moore, rather than a more politically salable candidate, gaining the party’s nomination. Moore then lost the special general election to Democrat Doug Jones, who went on to provide the decisive vote in several key legislative battles.
No other Republican senator has yet shown the moxie and parliamentary expertise to be an obvious improvement over McConnell. Then again, McConnell’s use of brute political force, including fund-raising, has dissuaded others from emerging. For the good of the party, McConnell should start letting other hands manage the tiller so someone else can take the helm in two years. Even then, McConnell’s own Senate term will have two more years to run, so he can serve as the eminence grise for whoever replaces him as leader — available for consultation but not himself skippering the ship.