What Does Mitch McConnell Do Now?

At age 79, the longtime Senate Republican leader is contemplating his legacy.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell
Win McNamee / Getty

To visit Mitch McConnell at his office in the Capitol, you must first pass through a faded world that he has meticulously preserved. A fireplace in the reception room still bears a crack left by a fire British soldiers set during the War of 1812. Through a doorway, a conference room displays portraits of former GOP Senate leaders, among them the luckless Charles McNary, who landed the job just when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party captured whopping majorities. Looking around the room and identifying his predecessors last week, the current Senate minority leader paused at the image of McNary, a largely forgotten figure. “This poor guy,” he said.

McConnell’s 2016 memoir is called The Long Game. He plays it well. He was pushing 65 when his colleagues first elevated him to Republican leader. Come 2023, he will have spent 16 years at the top, which would surpass the record set by former Democratic Senate Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told reporters in Kentucky back in March.

For McConnell, politics is sport. He’s won and lost and is now aiming to recapture his old title of Senate majority leader in the 2022 midterm elections. “If you’re a football fan, it’s like the difference between being the offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator,” McConnell told me. “The offensive coordinator has a better chance to score.” But for many Americans, rarely has politics been less of a game. A mob breached the Capitol on January 6, hunting for elected officials to kill. The night before, someone had planted pipe bombs outside the Democratic and Republican Party headquarters in Washington. The times feel uniquely dangerous, warranting unified governmental action. That’s not what the nation is getting.

“This is friendly combat!” McConnell told me. “We try to beat each other on a daily basis.” At that, he laughed. I’ve been watching the Senate Republican leader through three administrations, and until that moment, I’d never heard him laugh. For that matter, I’d never seen him smile in person. Like a lot of reporters’, my only real impression of McConnell was that of a career politician with a somnolent baritone focused on amassing power and keeping it.

I’d asked for the interview but was somewhat surprised it happened. Page 1 of McConnell’s memoir lays out his unsentimental view of the news media: “I only talk to the press if it’s to my advantage.” Editorial cartoonists heap disdain on him. In cheeky defiance, McConnell has framed copies of their work hanging on his office walls. He seems to relish the attention. The epilogue of his book includes a scene after the 2014 midterms that elevated him to majority leader. Leaving for Washington, he recalls being mobbed at the airport in Kentucky: “People were lined up three and four deep all the way to the gate.” But how will history view him? Maybe that’s why I was allowed in recently. He’s at a point in life when he’s starting to think about his legacy.

Something is broken in the Senate. McConnell’s sustained commitment to stopping Democratic priorities, whatever the cost, has deepened the dysfunction that makes many Republican voters doubt the efficacy of government in the first place. In most democracies, a stubborn minority party cannot stop the majority from debating the nation’s worst problems, much less solving them. McConnell is one reason the United States remains an exception. He’s succeeded to a point where Democrats, in desperation, are casting about for work-arounds that would more easily translate their popular majorities into actual policy. There’s a push to add justices to the Supreme Court so as to counteract the conservative majority McConnell helped forge, and to do away with a filibuster rule that requires 60 of the Senate’s 100 votes to pass most bills. In 1911, the nation’s first Socialist House member, Victor Berger of Wisconsin, proposed a constitutional amendment abolishing the Senate. In recent years, Berger’s quixotic idea has gotten a second life, as some Democrats have fantasized about scrapping the body that’s been McConnell’s workplace for the past 36 years. They’re especially aggrieved that despite initially condemning the January 6 attack, he helped foil plans for a bipartisan commission tasked with producing a thorough record of what happened that day—and identifying who is complicit. Quashing the commission spared former president Donald Trump the most credible inquiry into the insurrection he might ever face. (In response to the bill's failure in the Senate, House Democrats last week created a 13-member select committee to examine the event.)

I asked the 79-year-old senator how he would describe his own legacy. “I don’t think I’m the best one to judge my period in leadership,” he said. He shifted in his chair. He had no notes in front of him; at this stage of his career, he knows what he wants to say. He speaks in a monotone, seldom deviating from Republican talking points. “I always kid him and say he’s the most disciplined person I know when it comes to what he says, because he has the capacity to repeat it over, and over, and over again,” Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas told me. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the third-ranking member of the Senate’s Republican leadership, told me that McConnell “really is the master of the Senate,” in a nod to a Robert Caro biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. “He’s thinking about the Senate, as opposed to Johnson, who was thinking about the presidency every day he was in.”

Like Johnson, though, McConnell is a proud partisan. He’ll nod to the possibility of working with Democrats, though he’s clearly not interested in compromise for its own sake. I asked McConnell if he’s willing to work toward across-the-aisle solutions. “Of course, but it depends on the issue!” he said. We were speaking the day before President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of senators announced they’d struck a tentative deal on the biggest infrastructure package in decades. “If this infrastructure bill goes somewhere, believe me, I’ll be in the middle of it,” he told me. “Because that’s an area where both sides are interested in doing something for the country, and there is at least the potential for pulling us together. If it has to do with things like [the voting-rights legislation Democrats have put forward], there’s nothing to talk about.” But in the days that followed the announcement, McConnell signaled that he has no problem opposing the plan.

“I get up every day hoping that we can have an outcome, politically, right of center,” he told me. “Right now, this is a 50–50 country. We’ve got a 50–50 Senate. One of the arguments I’ve been making against a number of things that [Democrats] like to do is that the voters didn’t vote for this.” He laughed again.

Any long view of McConnell’s tenure would dwell more on what he’s blocked than on what he’s built; what he’s against, not what he’s for. When I asked Republicans close to McConnell what he cares about most, it was striking how little they mentioned policy. They talked instead about his fixation on winning the game. “He lives and breathes politics, probably since he was in high school,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, said of the former high-school student-council president.

McConnell has called himself “the grim reaper” on occasion, savoring his caricature as an unapologetic obstructionist. “From that perspective, he’s a true conservative,” Scott Jennings, a former McConnell campaign adviser, told me. “Being a conservative means resistance to change.” Still, the grim reaper? “It made people laugh,” McConnell said.

McConnell wants to be offensive coordinator again, but defense is where he excels. Mansfield, whose record he is poised to break, helped usher in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. McConnell’s improbable feat has been slowing the country’s tilt to the left during three decades in which Democrats won the popular vote in seven of eight presidential elections. What comes next might be his most audacious gambit.

Anyone who doubts McConnell’s impact should look no farther than the Supreme Court. It’s his court as much as it’s anyone else’s. Fully half of the six conservative justices now serving owe their confirmations as much to McConnell as to Trump. “He’s prepared to defy any rule, tradition, or precedent to make sure that he can personally choose the next Supreme Court,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, which vets Court nominees, told me.

In the fall of 2018, McConnell stood by Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, despite allegations that he had sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when they were teenagers. “There were several moments where Kavanaugh could have been pushed over,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told me. “And Mitch was one of [Kavanaugh’s] strongest defenders. President Trump hung in there, but Mitch was his biggest advocate: ‘You can’t let this guy go.’”

Democrats hold a demographic advantage that suggests their vote totals and, by extension their popular mandate, may only grow. But they still can’t seem to outmaneuver a man once described as having the emotional range of a “coatrack.” Even though his party lost both the White House and the Senate in the 2020 elections, McConnell has used the filibuster to stymie Democratic efforts to expand voting rights and bring accountability to the January 6 insurrection. Democrats are infuriated. Both parties should want the fullest and most credible possible inquiry into an attack meant to subvert the results of a democratic election, they argue. Both should want to make it easier for people to vote, not harder. “The American people are suffering,” Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, told me. “Which is more important? Delivering on their behalf or [keeping] antiquated parliamentary procedure that prevents important legislation from moving forward?”

McConnell isn’t deterred: He’s adapting old tactics to looming disputes. Three weeks ago, he told the radio host Hugh Hewitt that if the GOP wins back the Senate next year, he would be “highly unlikely” to let President Biden fill a Supreme Court vacancy should one arise in the 2024 election year. When I asked him if he’d do the same in 2023, he dodged the question. “Look, I don’t even know if I’m going to be the majority leader,” he said. “That’s going to be determined in November of 2022, so beyond that I don’t see any point in speculating.” Of course, he was willing to speculate in the radio interview. Republicans seem to be going along with his Supreme Court plan—or at least not publicizing any dissent. “It’s speculation; you’re asking me about something that is three years away,” Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told me. “It would be stupid of me to give you an answer.”

The minority leader keeps a tight grip on his caucus. He’s not faced internal opposition in any of his races for the leadership spot. Beneath a mirror in his office is a wooden mallet. Its two-word inscription reads The Persuader. The latitude he gets from his members helps in his confrontations with Biden. The two aren’t talking much these days, though: Until Biden moves closer to the center, McConnell said, there’s not much for them to discuss. They’ve been on friendly terms for years. McConnell was the only Republican senator to attend the funeral for Biden’s eldest son, Beau, in 2015, according to a McConnell aide. “I like him a lot; we’re friends,” McConnell said of the president. “The only reason we haven’t had much conversation this year is because Joe has decided to go hard left. If he were ever to shift [to] a more centrist position, I’d expect we’d be talking more … It’s not personal. He’s not mad at me and I’m not mad at him. It’s just that as long as he’s trying to do these kinds of things, there’s not much for us to talk about.”

“We don’t have any personal problems,” he added. “This is business.” But separating the two isn’t so easy. Biden certainly sounded like he was taking it personally when he told reporters last month: “Mitch has been nothing but no for a long time.” McConnell and Biden might find agreement on one issue, though. In reply to a question I’d asked, the minority leader said he’d like to see Congress scale back the number of Senate-confirmed appointments. Right now, about 1,200 jobs require Senate confirmation, an 80 percent increase since 1960. McConnell said that when he and others have tried to prune the ranks, Senate committee chairs from both parties balked. “Turf problems,” he said.

This summer, a major focus for McConnell is keeping the filibuster intact. Many Democrats want to pass voting-rights, immigration, and police-reform bills with a simple 51-vote majority, as opposed to a 60-vote threshold. He doesn’t see a breakthrough looming on voting rights: He described that to me as a “shirts and skins” issue. (It wasn’t when Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed with huge bipartisan majorities.) “I defended [the filibuster rule] against the tweeting and anger of the previous president with a one-word response every time he tweeted about it: ‘No,’” McConnell said. Criticizing the filibuster is “a critique of the United States Senate itself, which represents states, not population … Two senators from North Dakota have just as much power as two senators from California.” Of course, the fact that 760,000 North Dakotans and 40 million Californians have the same representation in the Senate is exactly what Democrats find so maddening about the body—and McConnell’s hold over it.

The government seems unable to meet the perils of this moment. Democrats are convinced they have a mandate; many Republicans are convinced that Trump won an election he lost. Neither side is willing to budge on the knottiest problems, and the inaction is eroding confidence in government. It’s no coincidence that one of Biden’s projects is proving to the world that democracy still works.

For a moment on January 6, McConnell seemed to acknowledge the stakes. In the hour before insurrectionists seized the Capitol, he delivered a surprising speech, maybe one of the most meaningful of his career. In the span of eight minutes, he demolished Trump’s bogus claim that the 2020 election had been stolen. “The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken,” McConnell said before Trump supporters forced him and his colleagues to flee. “They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them all, it would damage our republic forever.”

Soon enough, though, the statesman who had made a case for repudiating Trump would revert to the party tactician willing to coexist with Trump’s movement. He voted to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial in February—even though he said in a speech at the time that he considered the former president “morally responsible” for provoking the deadly event. On May 28 he voted against a proposal for a bipartisan congressional commission to investigate the riot.

My talk with McConnell was supposed to last 15 minutes but went about a half hour. By the end, aides were telling the boss that he had a radio interview and needed to go. He seemed in no great rush. I suspected he wanted to be better understood.

But maybe McConnell isn’t so very hard to understand. Why did he condemn the attempt to overturn the election and decry the assault on the Capitol, only to return to business as usual? The answer, I suppose, lies in his affection for political combat. The rioters were attacking the arena in which McConnell loves to compete, hastening the country “down a poisonous path where only the winners of the election actually accept the results,” just as he had warned earlier that day. And McConnell wasn’t about to let them destroy the game he loves.

Some senators come to Washington prepared to lose their seats in the defense of their principles. McConnell came to win, whatever the cost, for as long as he possibly can. “It is a great privilege to occupy this wonderful building for a period of time,” he told me. “And then move on.”