How Mitch McConnell masters the Senate
During the Great Depression, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and poet Carl Sandburg posed the question, “What is history but a few Big Names plus People?” Eighty-four years later, the people are instead asking, “What is history but a Big Name?”
For example, consider the Senate’s recent impeachment trial of President Trump. Reports suggest that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was solely responsible for how it unfolded and that he guaranteed the president’s acquittal. According to one characteristic account, the Kentucky Republican “scored a major victory for President Trump … when the Senate rejected two articles of impeachment after a trial that lasted only two weeks.” Another implied that McConnell single-handedly “secured” Trump’s acquittal. The account confidently asserted that “it’s easy to see how the Senate leader has been critical to Mr. Trump’s political survival.”
Media aside, other Senate Republicans are saying similar things. Longtime McConnell ally Republican Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt described the way McConnell managed the Senate during the trial as “a stroke of genius.” And when asked about the majority leader’s performance, one of Blunt’s colleagues anonymously replied, “I think it was masterful from the beginning.”
Notwithstanding these paeans to McConnell’s leadership skills, a closer look at Trump’s impeachment trial suggests that the majority leader’s performance was not the sole cause of its outcome. McConnell’s alleged “deft handling” of the Senate’s rules did not empower him to dictate how the trial unfolded. This suggests that McConnell’s genius lies in his ability to claim credit for whatever senators do. That is why he stays on top regardless of what happens in the institution.
While the Constitution stipulates that the House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment,” it gives the Senate the “sole Power to try all Impeachments.” The Constitution requires the chief justice of the Supreme Court to preside in the Senate whenever the institution tries the president, and it specifies that “the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present” is required to convict. That is, 67 senators must vote to convict the president if all 100 senators are present.
By his admission, McConnell acknowledged that the Constitution’s supermajority requirement makes it hard to convict a president whom the House has impeached. That is why McConnell declared, even before the House had impeached Trump, that there was “no chance” the Senate would convict him. Therefore, McConnell did not “secure” Trump’s acquittal so much as the Constitution and partisan loyalty to the president did. At no point did McConnell, or anyone else, concede that Trump was at risk of being convicted by the Senate.
Much of the praise for McConnell’s performance is based on his perceived ability to determine how the trial unfolded, separate and apart from its eventual outcome. From the trial’s outset, the question of whether senators should subpoena witnesses and documents dominated the proceedings. Blunt claimed that McConnell’s leadership skills were evident in his ability to “easily convince fellow Republicans they didn’t need to hear from more witnesses” or subpoena documents from the White House. In reality, however, McConnell was forced to “scramble” to persuade his colleagues to prevent senators from forcing votes to do so.
Still, the question from the trial’s earliest days was not whether to call witnesses or to subpoena documents. Instead, McConnell wanted to block votes related to witnesses and documents altogether for as long as possible. He proposed a package of supplementary rules (S. Res. 483) that explicitly prevented senators from forcing such votes until the end of the trial, and only if the Senate permitted them to do so.
Yet before the Senate could approve McConnell’s proposal, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer forced 11 votes to call witnesses and subpoena documents. Schumer forced four more votes at the end of the trial after the Senate voted to prohibit him from doing so. In total, senators voted 15 times on whether to call witnesses and subpoena documents despite McConnell’s efforts to prevent them from doing so in the first place.
McConnell also wanted to wrap up the trial as quickly as possible. While its two-week duration was unprecedented for a presidential impeachment trial, it was still longer than McConnell preferred initially. McConnell originally preferred to avoid a trial altogether by having senators vote to dismiss the House-passed articles of impeachment after the Senate received them. McConnell also supported preemptively dismissing the articles before the Senate received them. And an early report that one of McConnell’s leadership aides told all Republican senators that the Senate’s permanent rules permitted a majority vote to dismiss the articles underscores that his initial view was that two weeks was too long.
While the report, admittedly, did not say that McConnell explicitly advocated dismissing the articles, it is nevertheless an essential barometer of what he thought. McConnell’s staff are not known to take such steps without his prior authorization. And the always cautious McConnell did not disavow the effort after it was made public. Finally, no reports indicate that he reprimanded the staffer in question for acting without McConnell’s permission in a highly visible and contentious debate. These considerations further affirm the claim that McConnell supported the idea of dismissing the articles without holding a trial and suggest that he was feeling out his colleagues via his staff to avoid having to take a definitive stand on the issue.
The reactions to McConnell’s performance during Trump’s impeachment trial suggest that ambiguity is the key to his success. By refraining from taking definitive positions on issues such as impeachment, McConnell is able to cultivate a reputation of skilled leadership regardless of what happens in a Senate debate.
That is what happened in this instance. The evidence suggests that McConnell was not responsible for the outcome of Trump’s impeachment trial. Instead, a closer look at it reveals that the majority leader continually changed his position on key issues as the trial unfolded. Of course, the point of acknowledging McConnell’s flexibility is not to criticize it. Senators, and Senate leaders, must constantly adjust their behavior to an ever-changing environment.
This is because there is no one way to lead the Senate. Like everything else, it changes over time.
Understanding how McConnell leads the Senate, along with evaluating his ability to do so skillfully, requires more than merely listening to what his allies say about his performance. It requires looking at what the Senate does. To paraphrase Sandburg, the Senate is a witness. It stands and sees all. Listen to its testimony.