Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Gospel According to Mitch

It will surprise no one to hear that politicians are hypocrites. Even the word “politics” today works as a de facto synonym for not practicing what you preach. To be a “skilled politician” means you’re good at saying all the right things while hiding your intent to do the opposite most of the time. Only within the morally corrupt confines of the Beltway is the phrase regarded as a compliment.

For millennia now, moralists have assailed hypocrisy not only as a despicable personal trait, but also a stain on one’s soul. Even if you could fool other people into believing what you say, even if they never caught on to your self-serving and double-crossing, God could see straight through you. One way or another, you will be judged. People in general, and voters in particular, despise hypocrisy. Actions speak louder than words, and empty promises will come back to bite you. You can only bullshit your fellow humans so much—eventually they will catch on and hold you accountable.

The problem, though, is that none of this is true. The cup of political history overfloweth with proof that reliably rank moral dishonesty pays off in public life—one of the most glaring cases in point is Senior Kentucky Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

I have developed an unhealthy obsession with McConnell’s political career, not because there’s anything interesting about him personally (the only universally shared opinion about McConnell seems to be that he’s got the charisma of a tub of Vaseline), but because he’s the purest embodiment of some of our most significant political contradictions. And the baseline contradiction from which all the others flow is this: if hypocrisy is such a unanimously despised trait, then how did someone like McConnell become one of the most powerful people in the country?

Having read numerous lengthy profiles of one of the most outwardly boring people in the galaxy, I’ll spare you the long yarns about how a Southern boy who contracted polio at age two ascended the local and national ranks of government without ever losing a single electoral race. For a thorough account of McConnell’s career that simultaneously traces the evolution of the GOP over the past four decades, read Alec MacGillis’s sharp biography The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. If you have the stomach for it, compare MacGillis’s book with McConnell’s own propagandistic memoir, The Long Game.

Perhaps the single-most perplexing feature of McConnell’s life as a professional politician is the most painfully obvious one: the guy is the epitome of unlikeability. From the beginning of his political career, friends and competitors alike have remarked on McConnell’s coldness and lack of basic amiability, his astoundingly bland and awkward bearing as an orator, and, of course, his flaccid physical demeanor, like a turtle without a shell. In his 1977 campaign for county judge in Jefferson County, Kentucky, McConnell raised enough money to hire the (very expensive) pollster and strategist Tully Plesser along with the ad producer Robert Goodman. Goodman himself said of McConnell, his own client, “He isn’t interesting. He doesn’t have an aura, an air of mystery about him.” Mitch McConnell is the human equivalent of eggshell paint. He’s a bowl of porridge whose girlfriend dumped him for gruel. You get the picture.

More perplexing still is this reptilian nonentity’s nugatory track record in terms of doing anything to incrementally improve our shared public life. You’d be hard pressed to find someone outside of D.C. who knows or remembers McConnell for remotely good reasons. For liberals and leftists, McConnell’s impeccably punchable face has been the symbol of cynical Republican obstructionism over the last eight years. And for the terminally aggrieved conservative base that Trump stole away from the GOP establishment, McConnell was often painted as too ready to reach compromises with the Obama administration, especially on the showdowns over raising the debt ceiling (2011) and avoiding the fiscal cliff (2013). On the far right, McConnell’s a spineless “cuckservative” puppet of corporate interests, plain and simple.

These latter complaints will, no doubt, baffle anyone left of center. After all, this is the same man who famously declared in 2010 that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” This is also the man who followed through on that pledge by leading the GOP’s congressional charge to throw sand in the gears of government at every turn during Obama’s presidency.

Beyond outright petulance, the logic behind McConnell’s strategy was clear. As Michael Grunwald explained in Politico, “Republican leaders simply did not want their fingerprints on the Obama agenda; as McConnell explained, if Americans thought D.C. politicians were working together, they would credit the president, and if they thought D.C. seemed as ugly and messy as always, they would blame the president.” (That this strategy did not, in fact, make Obama a one-term president had little to do with McConnell’s search-and-destroy legislative philosophy, and almost everything to do with the GOP’s nomination of private-equity Fauntleroy Mitt Romney as the president’s 2012 challenger.)

Obama stoked the hopes of voters in 2008 for a “post-partisan” way of doing politics that would allegedly put country over party differences. And in the wake of a disastrous Bush presidency, capped off by a crippling economic recession, it appeared that the buoyant Obama wave was pushing the modern GOP closer and closer to oblivion. If the American people began to sense that things were, indeed, getting better under Obama, that would be the death knell for the modern Republican party.

When others in the party began to panic, though, McConnell buckled down. Harkening back to the infamous tactics of Newt Gingrich, McConnell followed this fathomlessly cynical logic to its culmination, weaponizing his branch of Congress to deny the Obama administration any chance whatsoever to claim post-partisanism was working, even if that meant torpedoing the public’s faith in government entirely.

McConnell’s plan proved a (quite literal) smashing success. After eight years of intentionally driving the government into crippling gridlock, McConnell at last has everything he ever wanted—Obama’s gone, Republicans control every branch of government, and he’s fastened his turtle chompers onto the job he’s obsessed over for most of his adult life. In The Long Game, McConnell confesses that, while just about every ambitious senator on the Hill is gunning for the ultimate prize of one day commanding the Oval Office, this was never his goal. “When it came to what I most desired,” he writes, “and the place from which I thought I could make the greatest difference, I knew deep down it was the majority leader’s desk I hoped to occupy one day.” That day came in January of 2015.

There was one big unforeseen consequence, though. As one of the chief architects of the GOP’s scorched-earth strategy during the Obama years, McConnell had created the basic conditions for the Senate’s—and indeed, the GOP’s—own public immolation. Even if it meant filibustering their own proposals, Republicans wanted to expose the useless guts of a broken system to the public and try to pin as much of the blame on Obama as possible. In the process of burning down Washington, though, they cleared a path for the anti-Obama, a loud-mouthed beast who would capitalize on the collective lost faith in the government establishment they themselves had used to fuel a fire that was now burning beyond their control.

This is what makes McConnell such an easy target now. After years of intransigent, uncompromising warfare with the Obama vision, he now must figure out some way to jumpstart the same machine he’s tried so hard to drive into the dirt. It is thus with a peculiar mixture of schadenfreude and fury that we are now treated to the ongoing spectacle of Mitch’s hypocrisy—Mitch-pocrisy, if you will—laid bare. As with Trump, the law of digital irony continuously seems to affirm that, for every injunction McConnell makes during the current administration, there’s a clip somewhere of him saying the exact opposite during the Obama years. (...)

These recent examples of McConnell’s outlandish hypocrisy are just the tip of the iceberg; he has spent his entire career flip-flopping. As John Yarmuth, Kentucky’s only Democratic congressman, told a union crowd in 2014, “Mitch McConnell has been the same cold-hearted, power-hungry politician for the entire forty-six years I’ve known him . . . He’s like a windmill—whichever way the wind blows, he goes. He doesn’t have any core values. He just wants to be something. He doesn’t want to do anything.” Perhaps what’s most distressing about this is that virtually none of us register it as anything resembling news. Everyone knows McConnell is a slimy hypocrite. What’s worse, everyone knows that his hypocrisy works.

by Maximillian Alvarez, The Baffler | Read more:
Image: Gage Skidmore