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The Rise and Fall of Mitch McConnell – and What Happens Now

He will soon be gone. Most conservatives say it’s about time.

In trying to untangle the complicated legacy of retiring Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), one is faced with the classic choice between half-full and half-empty.

Some will remember fondly how the 82-year-old grizzled veteran of political wars and longest-serving Senate leader in American history ushered an assembly line of conservative judges and Supreme Court Justices nominated by Donald Trump through the gauntlet of Congress’ upper chamber. He was a crucial component in transforming the high court into a constitutional bulwark against the worst excesses of the hard left, increasingly defined as the Democratic Party. Ol’ Mitch was famously passionate about the judiciary and intent on making an indelible mark on American jurisprudence. His staid – some would say robotic – disposition, forged through a childhood battle with polio, and his deep understanding of Senate rules and protocol made him ideally suited for such a role.

Unfortunately, that is the lone rose among the thorns of McConnell’s many years as leader of Senate Republicans, at least in the view of not just the left, but most conservatives and Trump loyalists as well. For all of them, left to right, McConnell was never to be trusted. In the short term, his transparent hatred of Trump and, in the longer term, his firm commitment to maintaining the status quo represents everything Trump was – and may soon be again – seeking to overturn. In fact, his name is usually the first to arise when discussing the entrenched Washington establishment. He has long been the face of the Swamp. But no longer.

The Downward Spiral of Mitch McConnell

The handwriting appeared to be on the wall when the octogenarian froze while answering a reporter’s question on two occasions in 2023. Widespread speculation about the cause of his lapses centered around a concussion caused by an ugly spill in March of ‘23. But at the very least, those episodes likely contributed to his decision that now is the time for him to step aside from leadership, though he will continue to hold his Senate seat until his term expires in January of 2027. He has finally admitted what so many have urged him to embrace for years, that “[i]t is time for the next generation of leadership.”

New banner Memo - From the Desk of Senior Political Analyst Tim Donner 1But there is another compelling element to consider about the decision by McConnell. Did he quit, at least in part, due to the prospect of another Trump presidency, which for him in many ways presents more trouble than having Biden in the White House? He never cottoned to Trump’s temperament and talk of draining the Swamp, but the relationship was severed – likely for good – after January 5, 2021, when McConnell blamed Trump for losing control of the Senate, because the outgoing president told Georgia voters that the two senate races to determine control of the upper chamber, like his, would be rigged. The next day was January 6 – and game over for Trump and McConnell.

Then there were McConnell’s remarks about “candidate quality” during the 2022 midterms, a none-too-transparent broadside at the 45th president and the MAGA-friendly candidates he endorsed who went on to lose, most prominently Herschel Walker in Georgia. He blamed Trump for supporting unelectable candidates. Trump in turn blamed McConnell for refusing to use his considerable fundraising abilities to support those MAGA-friendly party nominees. It is a classic chicken and egg argument.

A new Senate Republican leader will not be in place for many months, leading some in Trump’s orbit to fear that with McConnell now a lame duck, he might use his influence to undermine Trump during the presidential campaign. We don’t yet know how influential McConnell will be in selecting his successor, but it’s a sure bet he will push for someone who, like him, will protect the status quo and tread lightly with Donald Trump if the 45th president succeeds in becoming the 47th. Among the senators expected to seek the leadership position are John Thune of South Dakota, currently the second-ranking Republican; John Barrasso of Wyoming; and John Cornyn of Texas – all considered conservative establishment figures. And then there is Trump ally Rick Scott of Florida, whose previous bid to unseat McConnell came up well short.

Did Mitch McConnell Like Being the Grim Reaper?

Conservatives have tried to edge McConnell out for years. But on the other side of the aisle, leftists believe much damage has been done by McConnell’s drive to promote judges and justices who seek to reduce the power of the administrative state. Indeed, though most on the right see him as the leader of the “uniparty” establishment elite, the view is quite the opposite on the left. As NBC’s longtime liberal journalist Howard Fineman wrote of McConnell, “early in his Senate career, he adopted as guiding goal the destruction of the social-welfare state as erected by the Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. His bleak sense of realism told him he could not get elected president to do that. Instead, he would do it from the Senate by dismantling the federal judiciary that had sanctioned and enabled the liberal state.”

Part of Mitch McConnell’s political epitaph will be his standing as the single most unpopular political figure in the country over multiple polling cycles, finishing below Trump, Biden, Pelosi, George Soros and all the other familiar national names. And all along, one got the sense that he either didn’t care that he was so disliked or that he actually embraced his status as the Grim Reaper. One way or another, his tenure in leadership will long be debated by those who credit him with transforming the federal judiciary for a generation – and those who view him as little more than the guardian of a corrupt ruling class.

Read More From Tim Donner

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