DANIEL VAUGHAN: Mitch McConnell Became A Great Senator Right When America Needed It

 March 1, 2024

Senator Mitch McConnell announced his retirement from Republican leadership this week. He plans to continue through the end of his term, but he's passing the torch of Senate leadership to the next generation, he said. The race to decide that is on, but can wait for another day.

Though McConnell declined to comment on his lengthy career, we should. These moments are rare in American politics when a person leaves office at the height of their profession. I wrote last September that it was time for McConnell to step aside. That's not due to any policy differences but rather due to the apparent decline in health the Senator has faced in recent years.

The easiest thing to note about McConnell, both his time as a Senator in general and as a Republican leader, is that he's one of the most powerful Senators to have ever served in the chamber. When he won the election in 1984, he was the only Senate seat to flip towards Republicans, despite Reagan demolishing Walter Mondale. If you watch the CBS News coverage, they talk of Republicans winning races in Vermont, California, and Oregon. At the same time, Kentucky was the shocking result - how times change.

The first part of McConnell's legacy is on free speech. Starting in the 1990s, McConnell fought Senator John McCain's proposals for campaign finance reform. He even took that fight to the Supreme Court and lost in the case McConnell vs. FEC in 2003. He was undeterred and continued fighting, until the Supreme Court partially overturned that case in Citizens United vs. FEC in 2010.

That legislation attempted to restrict speech based on who funded the speech. McConnell has argued for decades that this infringes upon the First Amendment, and we're slowly seeing the Supreme Court and other institutions come around to his thinking.

For those who forget the facts of Citizens United, the FEC was attempting to block advertisements showcasing a movie critical of Hilary Clinton before the 2008 election season. The FEC tried to block it under the McCain-Feinfold Act, and they ended up getting shot down by the Supreme Court.

McConnell has been instrumental in returning America to an originalist understanding of the First Amendment that has helped boost free speech everywhere.

McConnell's second accomplishment is that he pulled arguably the greatest gamble in modern Senate history. When former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia tragically passed away in February 2016, it was a massive earthquake in politics. McConnell was nine years into his leadership term and controlled the Senate. He had to choose how to deal with a Supreme Court replacement from the Obama administration with an election barreling down on everyone.

At the time, no one thought Trump could win. So the options were: 1) Let Obama appoint Scalia's successor, or 2) let Hilary Clinton do it. McConnell opted for option 3) refuse a replacement on the slight chance that Trump would win. He took every arrow and sling from the press, Democrats, and even some Republicans.

But that one move shifted the power balance in the Supreme Court. With Trump's win, he took that Senate majority and shoved more conservative judges into the judiciary than anyone previous to him. And that included three Supreme Court justices in four years.

While Trump dithered on various legislative actions he claimed he wanted and would back away from, McConnell ignored the White House and continued pumping through more judges.

In short, the longest-serving Senator from Kentucky reshaped the judiciary and our laws more than any other Senator. And it's fitting he did that as a member of the Reagan Revolution. Under Reagan, Democrats had started the historic and unprecedented measure of blocking Reagan's choice for the Supreme Court and slowing judicial appointments under him.

They escalated those tactics under the George W. Bush administration, nuking nominations and ratcheting the rhetoric. McConnell single-handedly reversed a generation of conservative losses from the judiciary branch and Democratic tactics to deny qualified candidates the bench.

It took a massive gamble on his part and the steadiness to push through conservative nominees at a breakneck speed.

McConnell stands in a unique place in American history in this regard. The conservative movement in America had pushed for legislative and election victories for a generation and saw Reagan as the pinnacle of their achievement. But McConnell delivered the true ending for that movement by providing victories that Reagan and his cohort could not.

And now we have expanding free speech protections, the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and many other things that have right the ship. For that, McConnell is impossible to miss in American history. He's been a rock in Republican and US politics amid a time of great upheaval.

The scary part for the Senate is that they need someone new to provide that security when things are still choppy on the waters. McConnell says he isn't going anywhere and will finish his term. That leaves him in a role similar to Nancy Pelosi, helping guide the newer generation as he steps out of the spotlight.

I wish him nothing but the best, thank him for his service to his country, and hope the next Republican leader in the Senate has a career as storied as McConnell's.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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