Mitch McConnell has a long history of playing hardball — even changing the rules of American politics — to benefit the Republican Party.
He has opposed limits on campaign finance, knowing that corporations and the wealthy donate to Republicans. As the Republican Senate leader, he has helped turn the filibuster into a normal tactic. He has boasted about his desire to damage the presidencies of both Barack Obama and Joe Biden. And McConnell in 2016 refused to consider any Supreme Court nominee by Obama, effectively flipping the seat back to a Republican nominee.
In each of the cases, McConnell has been willing to break with precedent in ways that many historians and legal scholars consider dangerous. He often seems to put a higher priority on partisan advantage than on American political traditions or even the national interest, these scholars say.
So how is the country supposed to make sense of McConnell’s actions this week?
On Tuesday, he criticized the Republican National Committee for its response to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The committee — the party’s official organization — had described the events of Jan. 6 as “legitimate political discourse” and censured Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, two House members who are helping investigate the riot.
McConnell repudiated his own party. “We saw what happened,” he told reporters. “It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election, from one administration to the next. That’s what it was.”
The remarks were striking because McConnell’s position on Jan 6. — and on Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud that inspired the attack — has been inconsistent. At first, McConnell harshly criticized Trump for inciting it, only to back off. He voted to acquit Trump of impeachment charges, effectively keeping Trump as the party’s dominant figure.
“To this day McConnell has been unwilling to impose any political consequences on Trump,” Amanda Carpenter of The Bulwark, a conservative publication, has written. McConnell also waited more than a month to acknowledge that Biden had won the 2020 election.
Still, I think there is a consistent explanation for McConnell’s behavior, whatever you think of it.
McConnell’s biggest goals are plain to see. He wants to hold power and ensure that the federal government’s policies are largely conservative, pro-business and anti-regulation.
Downplaying his rifts with Trump serves these goals. It helps the Republican Party remain united and increases its chances of winning elections. McConnell is surely savvy enough to understand that Trump appeals to some voters whom past Republicans did not win.
At the same time, Trump alienates other voters whom Republicans have historically won, like the suburbanites who helped Democrats flip Arizona and Georgia in 2020. Fully aligning with the violence and lies of the Jan. 6 movement, as the R.N.C. did last week, brings potential political costs.
McConnell understands that, as well. He remembers the 2010 midterms, when far-right “unelectable candidates” — a phrase he used last month, when recalling that year — lost winnable races.
“This isn’t what he wants at all,” Carl Hulse — The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, who has been covering McConnell for years — told me, referring to the R.N.C. statement.
The current political atmosphere looks quite favorable to Republicans, as Carl noted. Polls suggest they are heavily favored to retake the House and may retake the Senate, too. The Democratic Party is divided over President Biden’s agenda, and many Democrats seem out of step with public opinion on Covid-19 policies and several social issues. “It’s highly likely to be a situation where the wind is at our backs,” McConnell recently told CNN about this year’s campaign.
Republicans also have some large long-term advantages, like control of the Supreme Court and the Senate’s built-in bias toward small states.
Put all this together, and you start to understand why even somebody whose only goal was maximizing Republican power might choose to speak out against a violent insurrection that tried to overturn an election on Republicans’ behalf. In today’s political environment, such extremism might be both unnecessary and counterproductive.
Of course, there is another potential motivation for McConnell. He may genuinely believe in a hardball approach to partisan power while also opposing the fraudulent overturning of an election result. McConnell, who has spent decades working on Capitol Hill, was “personally appalled by what happened on Jan. 6,” Carl said.
To people who are alarmed about the threats to American democracy, this principled explanation would be modestly encouraging.
“He’s been only partially courageous,” said Richard Hasen, an election-law expert and the author of a new book on political disinformation. Even as he has overturned long-lasting political traditions, he has “drawn the line on election subversion,” Hasen told me.
I also asked Daniel Ziblatt, a Harvard professor and a co-author of “How Democracies Die,” for his thoughts, and his email response is worth excerpting:
When democracies face political violence, it’s almost as important how mainstream parties respond to it — Do they condemn it unambiguously and consistently? McConnell’s words were unambiguous (the good news) but he hasn’t been consistent (the bad news).
The story isn’t over. Indeed, I fear he, and certainly his party are engaging in what I would call the “semi-loyalists’ swerve” — condemning anti-democratic behavior one day, backtracking the next, being ambiguous the next.
The broader point is this: A democracy can’t survive in the way we have come to expect when one of two major political parties behaves as a party of authoritarians or democratic semi-loyalists. And that’s where the American Republican Party is today.
An important thing to watch, Ziblatt said, is how McConnell and other Republicans react in coming weeks to the findings of the Jan. 6 investigation.
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