If we’re all lucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stashed a blue bodysuit and a matching Republican-red cape-and-boots set in one of the old-school phone booths in the GOP cloakroom.
Over the next two years, at least, the Kentucky Republican will be the most important force for “truth, justice and the American Way” in Washington. He’s the guy with the power to protect the Senate, the Congress and the country from a new president who is both awash in power and hungry for more of it.
That won’t give comfort to liberals who revile McConnell for both his ideology and his uninterrupted eight-year besiegement of President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda and nominations. They’ll never see him as Superman.
But McConnell, as leader of the chamber most removed from the whims of the electorate, is the only man positioned to be a defender of the realm against the excesses of Trump, who cares little for the Constitution, laws or norms that have shaped this country.
Where McConnell and Trump are in line, the Senate majority leader will be the president’s greatest ally in navigating the tempestuous waters of the Senate. The question is how far McConnell will bend — or if he will break — in the face of grave assaults on congressional authority and American ideals. Already, Trump has threatened to jail political opponents and those who burn the flag.
No one in the modern Senate is more capable than McConnell of killing legislation he doesn’t like without leaving his fingerprints at the scene of the crime. Like the famed fictional superhero with the “S” on his chest, the Kentucky Republican is eager to mask his true identity when battling enemies and avoids calling attention to his own feats.
His weapon: arcana
McConnell virtually disappeared during the presidential election, avoiding the fate of so many GOP leaders who tangled with Trump and created headaches for themselves and the party. There’s no reason to think that, when he’s of the mind to, the wily Kentuckian won’t find a way to fight Trump quietly — to frustrate the president’s agenda by burying it in the arcana of Senate processes.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who found himself in a high-stakes war with Trump before the election, isn’t the guy to stand up to the White House. Too many of his members know that Trump is popular in their districts, and particularly with their primary electorates. Ryan simply doesn’t have control of his caucus or the rules structure to defy Trump without forcing a confrontation.
But the Senate is built, in the old aphorism, as the saucer that cools the hot tea splashing over the sides of the House. With a narrow majority, McConnell simply has to release a handful of Republicans to side with Democrats if and when Trump’s proposals are beyond the pale.
There’s also reason to think that McConnell has a stiff spine when it comes to major constitutional questions. He’s been a consistent defender of the First Amendment, declining to support proposed amendments to ban flag-burning. His critics point out that he cares about it only to bolster his position as an advocate for free speech — and the free flow of money — when it comes to campaign reform questions. But, after watching and reporting on McConnell for about 15 years, I believe his commitment runs deeper than that.
McConnell was also the Republican who fashioned deals with Vice President Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders to keep the government functioning and its credit rating intact at a time when the most raucous members of the GOP were happy to simply tear down any institution in sight.
The majority leader’s allegiance to the Senate’s prerogatives, and the nation’s standards, is sure to be tested by a president who seems to have a boundless enthusiasm for the accumulation and exercise of raw power — a man who stiffed contractors as a matter of standard practice, who believes he can bully any rival politician or country into submission, and who bragged about sexually assaulting women.
The truth is that, come January, McConnell may be the only man in America with the tools to defeat Trump. That puts him in a tight spot, and no one should expect that he’ll be a hero every time. But in his first post-election press conference, McConnell hinted that he won’t be anxious to go along with everything Trump wants — not just when it comes to enacting big spending programs that Democrats favor but also in terms of overreach by the president and his Republican allies.
It is “a mistake to misread your mandate,” he cautioned.
That goes for congressional Republicans, who will be on the ballot again in the 2018 midterms but also for Trump. It’s McConnell’s job to make the political decisions that keep his party in control and his responsibility to protect the power of the legislative branch against the encroachments of the executive branch. At times, he will be the only real backstop for progressives and moderates.
So, if you see McConnell duck into one of those phone booths now and again and emerge wearing an “S” on his chest, don’t be surprised. The “S” stands for “Senate.”
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.