Humility, Good of the GOP Underpin McConnell Milestone
Few jobs in Washington are as tough, or as thankless, as party leader in Congress. As Mitch McConnell becomes the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history this week, it’s worth reflecting on the significance of the milestone in the age of the Twitter — and the traits that have enabled him not only to survive but to thrive amid the political turmoil and intra-party feuds that have marked his nearly 12-year run.
For McConnell, the hardest part may have been getting to the Senate at all. The story of his long, character-defining struggle to overcome polio as a toddler is well known. But it was hardly the only obstacle he faced after being seized by political ambition as a boy in postwar Louisville, Ky. A self-described introvert with little money and few connections in a state long-dominated by Democrats, McConnell’s path to the Senate was as narrow as it was arduous.
Seeing the goal early was key. But mustering the will to achieve it — and having devoted parents who were diligent about drilling life lessons into their only child — were decisive. As McConnell writes in his 2016 memoir, “The Long Game,” a candid meditation on the art of facing up to one’s limitations, “My parents had taught me it’s not what you acquire in life that’s important, but what you contribute. I could see no better, more significant way to contribute than serving in the U.S. Senate. … I also knew I would have to work like hell to get there.”
We get a glimpse of what that work looked like in McConnell’s first real race, for county executive, in 1977. Writing about the campaign, he recalls feeling actual pains in his stomach as he walked into the diners and small businesses along the Dixie and Preston highways as the sun went down; and how he would arrive at the massive GE Appliance Park in Louisville at 6 a.m. to study the arrival and departure habits of the 20,000 men and women who worked there. Over a week, he covered the entire 1,000-acre park — and probably shook every hand.
It’s easy to overlook how unusual McConnell’s candor about his own ambitions is. But in a city where concealing ambition behind a cloak of righteousness is the norm, this refusal to play a double game is one of his more underappreciated virtues. It’s liberated him from the burden of sustaining a false persona, and instead enabled him to devote his time and energies to a core set of political and legislative goals that have included, among other things: shepherding a generational tax reform bill into law; a decades-long defense of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech; the reversal of Democrat political dominance in Kentucky; the development of a world-class scholarship and civics program at the University of Louisville; changing the Republican political culture in Washington to prioritize winning elections and securing incremental legislative victories over intramural purity tests; and, more recently, working with a Republican president to transform the federal judiciary.
Ambition and diligence alone do not explain a record of achievement like this. The real secret, in my view, is McConnell’s long public record of subordinating his own short-term goals to the good of the party. This, combined with an authentic personal humility, are most evident in moments when McConnell has taken the fall for his colleagues or his party when doing so was required to move the ball down the field.
Examples include his success in uniting a fractious and diminished conference in the wake of President Obama’s landslide victory in 2008; his efforts to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program during the 2008 financial crisis just a few weeks before he faced Kentucky voters in a tight re-election bid; casting the decisive vote for a debt limit increase in the middle of a bruising primary in early 2014; and his confident but lonely decision not to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court in early 2016 when every “expert” in Washington told him he was making a mistake.
McConnell’s plodding leadership style and comfort with legislative incrementalism have come at a cost. They may have earned him the loyalty of his Republican colleagues, but they’ve also helped ensure that he never wins a popularity contest. Yet affirmation has never been his lodestar. McConnell’s highest priorities are doing what he thinks is right and maximizing the chances for long-term political and legislative success. If this means staking out unpopular positions or telling hard truths to impatient voters or cable-news hosts, he has routinely shown a solitary willingness to do it.
My own favorite example of McConnell’s independent streak came during Obama’s second term. The Senate was considering a particularly contentious Cabinet nominee, the battle lines were drawn, and all eyes were on him. Minutes before the vote, a few of us presented our closing arguments. After patiently listening to everyone, he paused, smiled, and said, “Well, thank you, all. I’m reminded of Lincoln, who listened to his advisers and declined their unanimous advice. I think I’ll do that today.” It was the right call, and vintage McConnell.
Like many conservatives, McConnell’s worldview is rooted to a large extent in a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for being born in a free and prosperous country. At having been born into a loving family. At having been given talents and a privileged platform to exercise them. And at being able to make a meaningful difference in the lives of his constituents. That same humility often shows itself in a surprising gratitude toward staff — another rarity in Washington. It is simply unthinkable among those who’ve worked for the man that he would ever criticize or undercut them.
This may seem like a small thing. But in today’s Washington, the gentlemanly virtues are indeed rare, and a big part of McConnell’s success. He is that unusual politician who actually believes no one ever learned anything from the sound of their own voice. Who not only thinks that a boss should work harder than his team, but does; who not only thinks a party leader should take the bullets, but routinely has. Above all, he knows that the path to success in politics, as in life, is more about accepting the cards you have been dealt than in trying to wish them away.
The lesson? For me, it’s that the job of Senate Republican leader is every bit as hard as it looks — and that Mitch McConnell is as worthy an occupant as Republicans could hope for.