Almost all of the policy crises we face today — abortion, guns, climate change, the integrity of our elections — have been blocked from consideration by the US Senate. How did that happen? How did what some have called the “world’s greatest deliberative body” come to a standstill?
The answer, according to Ira Shapiro, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast – is Mitch McConnell. Senate Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has put these highly critical issues on ice.
Shapiro is a 45-year veteran of Washington, a former Senate staffer, a former official in the Clinton administration, and the author of three books about the US Senate, including his latest, The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America.
Shapiro details what happened after McConnell became minority leader, and how it led, in his view, to a “dark place in history.”
He talks about McConnell’s real and imagined skills, his patience, and his unique ability to “surf the madness” of his party. Above all, Shapiro shines a light on McConnell’s unbridled focus on the courts, the federal bench, and particularly the Supreme Court, and shows how it all started from his early work in the Justice Department with Antonin Scalia.
Shapiro details McConnell’s shamelessness, and shows his repeated actions that put partisan consideration well ahead of what is good for the country. Actions that, particularly during the 2008-2009 financial crises, Shapiro calls unpatriotic acts. McConnell, he says, has been not a Senate leader — but a partisan leader.
According to Shapiro, the customs and norms of the US Senate may never recover from McConnell, and by contagion, our democracy will be all the worse for it.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. All of the key issues, crises really, that we’re facing today are blocked for consideration by the US Senate. Abortion, guns, climate change, and the integrity of our elections themselves all are frozen in what was once called the greatest deliberative body. In our lifetime, and in the 246-year history of the Republic, there was a time when great men walked to stride the US Senate. It was once the crucible of democracy, a cooling saucer to modulate the nation’s passions, and it now fails on all counts.
Today, it’s filled with small-minded men and women whose desire for power, reelection, money, and partisan advancement over the interests of the people rule the day. And while there may be more crazies and corruption on one side of the aisle, the other side has proven itself to be mostly weak, feckless, and lacking in imagination. Certainly, the how we got here is a complicated story. There’s plenty of blame to go around. However, since 2006, when he became minority leader, Mitch McConnell has sucked dry any moral compass the Senate might have had. McConnell’s actions during the Obama and Trump presidency have single-handedly packed the court and refused to let the Senate do its intended job.
All of this may mark the end of the Senate as our founders knew it, but some argue that it also marks the end of democracy as we know it. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest Ira Shapiro. Ira has had a 45-year Washington career focused on American politics and international trade. He served for 12 years in senior staff positions in the US Senate where he worked for some of the greats. He served in the Office of the US Trade Representative during the Clinton administration and is the author of two previous books about the Senate. His articles have appeared in numerous publications.
And it is my pleasure to welcome Ira Shapiro to talk about his new work, The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America. Ira Shapiro, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Ira Shapiro: Jeff, it’s wonderful to be with you. I am worried though that I’m not going to be able to improve on your summary. The way you described Senator McConnell’s effect on the Senate I think is quite accurate.
Jeff: Thank you for that. Both the respect for and the functionality of the United States Senate seems to have been on a downward spiral for some time now. Talk a little bit about if there was an inflection point that you can see when that started to happen.
Ira: One of the things about my work on the Senate convinced me that a relatively long decline of the Senate turned into a deep downward spiral precisely when McConnell became leader. And much of what has happened, while there are other disappointing people and feckless people without principle, I think McConnell has written a large page in political history, and unfortunately, it’s a very dark page.
Jeff: I guess the question is whether McConnell is this brilliant political mind, this brilliant legislator, or he just happened to catch the wave of what was going on in the Senate, in the politics of the country, and he understood that.
Ira: Oh, I think that’s a great question. And I think to some extent, probably the answer is both. I have said and I believe that McConnell is an exceptionally skilled political strategist and tactician and very patient. He waited actually 22 years in the Senate before he became a Republican leader, and then another eight before he became majority leader. So he’s very able politically and very focused. And he certainly deserves grudging admiration for surfing the madness of the Republican Party, right? If we look at the House Republicans, one leader after another has found himself thrown on the side of the road along the way.
We remember Paul Ryan or John Boehner or Tom DeLay, one after another. McConnell has surfed the madness and stayed in control. So he is very skillful, but to some extent, he has understood the times, and to another extent, he has made, in my view, some serious mistakes, particularly with respect to Trump, but he has stayed focused on the things that mattered to him, namely and most specifically, the court.
Jeff: What has been the single greatest skill that he has brought to the job?
Ira: I think the greatest skill he has brought to the job is a single-minded focus on his priorities, and that specifically involves moving the federal courts, and most particularly the Supreme Court, in an extreme right-wing direction. And the other skill that he brings to the job if I can name two, he is a master of keeping the support of his caucus. And look, you could bring him down with five or six people, but he has kept the Republican caucus because they respect his ability and appreciate that he has made them, in the past, the majority, and they understand that he has no fear at handling the donor base and exploiting the donor base and rewarding the donor base.
Jeff: How did the courts become a priority for him?
Ira: Well, he would say that he has a long interest in the court. In fact, he was deputy assistant attorney general in the dying years of the Ford administration. And he shared an office interestingly with a young right-wing lawyer named Antonin Scalia. So he would say he has a long interest in the court. And I think that there’s some truth in that, but he also grasped two things. One, that the court, the Supreme Court, meant a great deal to a part of the Republican coalition and a part of the Republican coalition that was skeptical of Donald Trump, namely the Christian right. So that’s part number one. And number two though, he had said elections come, elections go, majorities shift. If you want to have a lasting impact on the country, courts are where you do it.
Jeff: Certainly one of the other skills, and I don’t know if we consider this a skill, that he brings to it is a sense of utter shamelessness. Talk about that.
Ira: Well, I think that [laughs], I absolutely believe that. I do think he is shameless. He is shameless in his willingness to shred the customs and norms of the Senate in a way that goes far beyond policy differences; just unprecedented breaks with customs and norms. The most famous of which, of course, was his decision not to take up a nomination by President Obama to fill the Scalia vacancy, but that’s only one of any number of breaks with the norms and customs of the Senate. But the shamelessness goes a little beyond that because he will routinely celebrate his victories whenever he has them and then mischaracterize and rewrite the history as well.
So in other words, it’s not just that he stacked the Supreme Court, it’s that the Supreme Court wars started with the Democrats – he has to do that. And so he’s pretty shameless. And I would say since you’ve invited me, news on that word, I think we have seen in the Senate Republicans a combination of the shamelessness of Mitch McConnell and by and large Lindsey Graham in recent years, coupled with the shamefulness of a lot of other senators who knew better and abandoned America, particularly in the crisis year of 2020.
Jeff: Go back a little further, talk a little bit about his comments after Obama’s election where he said categorically, “My goal is to make him a one-term president.” Talk about where that came from.
Ira: Well, I think that comment is noted a lot of times, and he would say that’s, “Of course, I’m a Republican. I wanted Obama to be a one-term president.” I have always focused more on what he did in the weeks that Obama became president, at a time when our country could have slipped into a second Great Depression. If we recall 2008-2009, the financial crisis of September and October of 2008, had morphed and extended from Wall Street to Main Street. So all of a sudden, we lost 750,000 jobs in one month, [and] we were in a very serious economic position. And yet McConnell decided even before Obama took the oath of office, that he was going to oppose Obama’s economic stimulus.
When only an economic stimulus could have prevented a very serious recession and even a depression. And yet, he opposed it. And the reason he opposed it is because he didn’t really care about what was happening to people around the country, including in Kentucky. What he cared about was a Democratic president was coming into office with high approval ratings, and that couldn’t be allowed. So I regarded that as not just shameless, but unpatriotic. I can’t envision another Senate leader behaving that way.
Jeff: And yes, he got other senators to go along with him in that action.
Ira: Ah, that’s a beautiful point. And that’s why I regard some of them as shameless and most of them are shameful. Why would they have all gone along with that? Well, he’s successful in holding his caucus together. And if three people – as I recall it was Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe (then in the Senate from Maine, also), and Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania. If those three people hadn’t voted with the Democrats, we might still be in the Great Recession.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the damage that he’s done, in your view, to the Senate as an institution.
Ira: I think it’s done enormous damage to the Senate as an institution. And the way I would describe it is that there are factors in our politics that made it harder to make the Senate work for a long time. And by that, I mean, genuine differences between the parties and the parties further apart than they were before. No more moderate to liberal Republicans from the Northeast of the Midwest, no more conservative Democrats in the South. So the parties were realigning, right, along regional lines, along racial lines, along ideological lines. So it’s going to be more difficult to make the Senate work. But that’s what senators are supposed to be able to try to overcome.
And that’s particularly the responsibility of Senate leaders to try to bring people together and bridge differences. And McConnell, after the first two years as leader, I think, you can’t draw too many conclusions from, but starting in the third year, when Obama becomes president, McConnell abandons the role of a Senate Leader and becomes an opposition leader and just a sheer partisan in a way that I don’t believe any of the modern Senate leaders have done. So I think that was a key change. So it’s two parts, right? There are some genuine factors that make the country more divided. And then there are political bad actors, starting, in my view, with the two largest of them, Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell, who make the situation worse.
Jeff: Certainly one of the things about McConnell is that while he has had his causes, and of course, the court is one and being an opposition leader defeating whether it was the Affordable Care Act or whether it was the bailout in 2008-2009, that McConnell is ideologically free except for his own agenda.
Ira: Well, yes. He would say that he has a right-of-center view and he opposes left-of-center views. He used to like to say, “America isn’t France, we’re a right-of-center country.” By that when he says “America isn’t France,” he means he’s against health care for people; basically, he doesn’t believe in that kind of thing. So he has a right-of-center view. But I think over time, as the Republican Party has become increasingly radicalized, he has moved and normalized that radicalization. Now, he would say, if I was in dialogue, he would say, “Well, actually, you know I’ve tried to defeat some of the people who were looking for Republican nominations to the Senate.”
And he has at some point tried to do that, the extreme ones, but he didn’t do it for ideological reasons. He did it because he didn’t think they’d win the election. So he’s been very focused on gaining the majority and trying to hold the majority.
Jeff: The other problem with some of those crazies, it’s not only that he didn’t think they would win the election, I think his greater fear is if they won the election, he couldn’t control them.
Ira: I think that’s true, Jeff, but I think that was his second fear – he would worry about that after they won the election. He just didn’t think they’d win the election. And remember – I shouldn’t say remember, I’m the only one that fixates on this sort of thing – in 2012, when Obama was trying to be reelected and he was in a tight race with Romney, McConnell was virtually measuring the drapes in the Majority Leader’s office. He thought this was his time, he made it quite clear he thought he was going to become majority leader.
But a couple of the extreme candidates that were in races that year lost, and the Democrats held the Senate, and McConnell vowed, “Boy, that’s never going to happen again.” And he worked very hard to keep the extremists from being nominated two years later.
Jeff: Talk about McConnell and Trump.
Ira: Yes. I think that first thing to be said is I don’t think McConnell believed that Trump would win the election. But McConnell was very controlled in 2016. He saw no reason to agonize over Trump, to criticize Trump, to do anything. When Trump was going to be the nominee, he was going to be the nominee. McConnell didn’t see any advantage to criticizing him. And he didn’t. When Trump got elected, surprising McConnell and everyone else, McConnell realized this was an opportunity that you don’t get very often. And he said as much: “You don’t get this kind of opportunity often. I’m Majority Leader, we control the House, and now we have a Republican President.”
And so he was determined to take advantage of that to reach his goals. And his goals, first and foremost, courts and specifically most, the Supreme Court. Second, repeal the hated Affordable Care Act, which he did not succeed at, despite his great effort, large effort, I don’t mean great effort. And third, tax cuts for the rich and business. And so that was his agenda, working with Trump. And by the way, [chuckles] just to show how extreme some of this stuff is, Trump didn’t run for president to take people’s health care away. That was a purely congressional thing that Trump essentially – they talked and they told him about it, and he accepted it. But that was McConnell and Paul Ryan.
Then, okay, so that’s the early going, right? As things go along, I think that McConnell had some significant concerns about Trump, particularly with respect to Russia. I think he understood the danger of Trump’s affection for Putin, inexplicable affection for Putin, but I think he played the longer game. He wanted to accomplish certain things, and we’ll see what Robert Mueller, the special counsel, comes up with. The way I would put it and others might disagree, Mueller had produced plenty of information linking Trump and the Trump campaign to Russia and showing acts that were by any measure obstruction of justice by Trump.
But Mueller didn’t defend or advocate for his report very strongly and it fizzled as you’ll remember. And Attorney General Barr mischaracterized the report and that helped it fizzle. And after that, McConnell no longer really worried too much about Russia or anything else. So do we go to the last year then?
Jeff: We most certainly should.
Ira: So the last year, which is the reason I wrote the book, my anger at what was happening in the country that the Republicans were not responding to. In the last year, McConnell began the last year by orchestrating the sham impeachment trial, the first one, where the Republicans did not convict Trump, even though everyone knew that Trump had shaken down President Zelensky of Ukraine because in order to try to get the Bidens investigated and the Republicans knew that, but McConnell orchestrated exoneration. When COVID started, the Senate did pass the CARES Act. But after that, McConnell and the others essentially stood by, stood distant while we had an unhinged president telling people to inhale disinfectant, attacking the blue state governors, mocking masks and social distancing, calling his supporters to come to indoor rallies that became super-spreader events. And at the same time signaling quite clearly that he wasn’t going to leave office if he lost the election because the election was “rigged.” McConnell and the others did nothing, they did nothing. And then after the election, McConnell did nothing to essentially acknowledge Joe Biden as president-elect, the three long weeks.
And in that time, in my view and I think it’s fairly clear, the “big lie” festered 50 million people, 70 percent of the Trump voters thought the election was stolen because nobody was telling them otherwise on the Republican side. So I think he has a lot to answer for.
Jeff: What could he have done? What could the Senate have done? What would you have liked to have seen them do?
Ira: I would’ve liked to have seen evidence that, A, they were trying to persuade Trump to change course and be more reasonable in terms of the measures that should be taken. Look, the pandemic and COVID is tough for any president or any prime minister to deal with all over the world. But acknowledging that doesn’t mean you have a completely unhinged and irrational president. So I would’ve had him and others talking to Trump privately. If that didn’t work, they should have been much more forceful publicly. They should have suggested that Trump step aside on this issue at least, let Mike Pence take care of it. He’s the head of the Coronavirus Task Force.
If you couldn’t do any of those things, I would’ve pressed for his resignation or either used that or the 25th amendment. What I wouldn’t have done was nothing. That was– and look, Jeff, the reason somebody said to me the other day, “The Betrayal, that’s a pretty harsh title.” I thought about it really carefully before I called it The Betrayal, and I call it The Betrayal for two reasons. One is the senators are the people who have the responsibility for checking an overreaching, potentially dangerous president. They have the responsibility. The voters can vote when they do and some of the Trump officials could dissent from his positions, but the senators had the independence and the stature and they should have done something. Number one. And number two, they failed in catastrophic fashion while the country was in absolute crisis. And they roused themselves to action only once in 2020 after the CARES Act had passed, but one more time and that was to ram through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, eight days before the election. I have written and I believe it’s the case that the only death McConnell seemed to care about in America was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s.
Jeff: Isn’t the larger problem though, as bad as McConnell might be in all the ways we have talked about here, isn’t the larger problem the nature of the people that have been elected to the Senate today?
Ira: You’re not going to get me to suggest that the people who are being elected to the Senate are as strong as some in the past. We had a lot of very good Republican senators in the past, but Jeff, I think there are enough capable people there that they should have done more. To take several examples, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Roy Blunt of Missouri, these are pretty capable people. They could have joined with Collins and Murkowski and Romney who have occasionally shown more independence. There are some of them who are extremists and there are some of them that are incompetent. And there are some that are utterly shameless, but there were enough if they had acknowledged their responsibility and stepped up. There were enough to stop Trump and McConnell.
Jeff: And of course, in this next cycle, we may get some that are worse.
Ira: Look, somebody said to me, well, that’s a strong book, angry, depressing. I said, well, all of that’s true. I think it’s important to get the history right, but I would also say it’s a call to action. The 2022 elections for the Senate are absolutely critical. If you want to change the political course of this country, one way to do it is elect more Democrats to the Senate. You disempower McConnell – he diminishes power sharply. And frankly, you disempower Joe Manchin if you have 53 or 54 Democrats. I know people feel bleak about the off-year elections but the map is very favorable to Democrats.
The Republicans have more seats at stake and the Republicans have more retirements and the Democrats have some really good candidates. So that’s what I would do.
Jeff: If only they were better at politics.
Ira: Let’s see what happens, Jeff. Let’s see what happens.
Jeff: Ira Shapiro. His most recent book about the United States Senate, this time focusing on Mitch McConnell, is, The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America. Ira, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Ira: Jeff, I thank you for giving me the opportunity. It’s always a great conversation with you. Thanks.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio. WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.