The Dangerous Weakness of Mitch McConnell

The debt limit fight proved that the GOP Senate Leader no longer has the juice to steer his party

A few weeks ago, someone asked me to rate my fears on a scale from one to ten regarding the United States actually defaulting on its debt. I gave that possibility a three. I wasn’t betting on Mitch McConnells’s patriotism or the courage of Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski. I didn’t think Kyrsten Sinema would exit the Witness Protection Program to broker a bipartisan deal with Susan Collins on Joe Manchin’s houseboat.

If the U.S. ever breaches the debt ceiling, it will not be on purpose. We will stumble into it. It will be an accident born of incompetence and cowardice. Mitch McConnell may be one of history’s great villains, but it was hard for me to see how McConnell, an ally of Wall Street barons everywhere, would see precipitation of a second Great Depression as being in his interest. Block bills to help the unemployed put a roof over their head and food on their table? Sure. Obstruct legislation to provide affordable healthcare? Of course! But force big GOP donors to downsize to only three homes? Not a chance.

However, the debt ceiling was lifted. No matter how much chaos ensues, in the end, we pull back from the brink, because when push comes to shove, McConnell will push against Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and the rest of the arsonists.

Ultimately, that is what happened last week, but I will not be so confident when the Senate takes up the debt limit again in a few months. The way it played out revealed that, counter to every bit of hagiography from the stenographers in the Capitol Hill Press Corps., Mitch McConnell is weak. Very weak.

The Dangers of a Weak Leader

The near defaults in 2011 and 2013 are usually attributed to the Tea Party and the radicalization of the Republican Party. A group of political neophytes, whose political education consisted of watching Fox and Friends, rode a wave of racial resentment and economic distress to Congress. With little to no understanding of the mechanism of the debt ceiling or the consequences of default, these Tea Partiers pushed for a confrontation with the Democratic president. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker at the time, was a country club, chamber of commerce Republican with few ties to the ascendant anti-Obama members of his party. Therefore, he did not have the credibility or sway to bring the Republicans together behind a coherent plan to prevent default. When Boehner and Obama reached an agreement, the Republican reneged because he couldn’t bring enough members of his caucus on board. Boehner was so weak that he couldn’t persuade his own leadership. Eric Cantor, Boehner’s weaselly deputy, undermined him with the Tea Partiers’ help to sow the seeds for a coup. In the Obama White House, we were planning for a potential default as the clock ticked down because we had no idea if Boehner could muster the votes to prevent a financial cataclysm. And neither did he.

By the 2013 debt limit fight, Boehner was so weakened by repeatedly getting rolled by Obama on taxes and disaster aid that he was barely a passive observer. He essentially ceded leadership of the House Republicans to Ted Cruz. Boehner lost control of his caucus and lost touch with the base of his party. He was whittling away the time remaining until his inevitable ouster. In 2011 and 2013, McConnell stepped in where Boehner couldn’t and helped cut deals to avert those crises. The Republican Senate Leader delivered on his promises and kept his party in line. But no more. In 2021, McConnell is Boehner.

Understanding McConnell’s Weakness

When I say McConnell is weak, I am not arguing that he is going to lose reelection in 2026 or that he is going to be ousted by an ambitious MAGA-ite like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley. McConnell is from one of the most Republican states in the nation and he is blessed by the fact that the most ambitious Republican Senators are also the least likable. Cruz doesn’t have enough friends to organize a game of HORSE let alone a coup of McConnell. But McConnell is weak because has lost touch with his party.

Donald Trump, the most influential Republican, hates McConnell and constantly bashes him. When reports of McConnell’s offer to Schumer leaked, the former president released a statement lambasting the Kentuckian:

Looks like Mitch McConnell is folding to the Democrats, again. He’s got all of the cards with the debt ceiling, it’s time to play the hand. Don’t let them destroy our Country!

Trump’s allies regularly trash McConnell. Last week on his show, Sean Hannity called McConnell a “swamp creature” and suggested he step down from leadership.

These attacks took a toll. In the most recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, McConnell’s approval rating is seven points underwater with Trump 2020 voters. Hatred of McConnell is one of the few things that unites the MAGA folks and the Resistance.

McConnell has a caucus filled with senators hoping to run for president by appealing to a base of voters that hate him. Doing what McConnell wants is now bad politics in the Republican Party. The days when McConnell could be counted on to deliver on his word are long gone.

A Strategy Borne of Weakness

Over the last few weeks, it’s been hard to divine McConnell’s strategy for the debt ceiling. Unlike in 2011 and 2013, he had no substantive demands like cuts to Medicare or Social Security. McConnell wanted two things: for Republicans not to vote for the debt limit and for Democrats to use the arcane budget reconciliation process to do so. Why would McConnell pick a high-stakes fight with such a low chance of success? The argument between McConnell and the Democrats wasn’t about whether Republicans needed to vote for the debt limit, but whether 50 Democrats would lift the debt limit via budget reconciliation or regular order.

Reporters regurgitating McConnell’s talking points told us that McConnell had a plan. He wanted to sow chaos to disrupt Biden’s agenda. We were told time and again that McConnell does not blink. He cannot be shamed. Surely, the Democrats would lose the fight. For many of the “in-the-know“ reporters, the Democratic defeat was a question of how and when; not if.

But McConnell did blink. He did the thing he said he wouldn’t do.

According to these cynical stenographers, McConnell’s reasoning for pushing budget reconciliation in this way was a stroke of strategic brilliance. When Congress deals with the debt limit normally, they can suspend it until a date certain. When they use the budget process, they can only raise the limit by a dollar amount — giving the U.S. Treasury permission to spend a certain amount of additional money. Republicans argued that the latter path made for better attack ads next fall. But this is not why McConnell demanded the budget reconciliation process.

It was his only option.

Any single senator can object to a request to waive the filibuster and allow a bill to pass with a majority vote. When Senator Schumer requested waiving the filibuster, McConnell said no because he knew that even if he said yes, he couldn't stop Ted Cruz or Rand Paul from doing so. The budget reconciliation process was the only way for McConnell to guarantee the debt ceiling could be lifted without Republican votes. With only days to spare, Schumer called his bluff. McConnell retreated and agreed to scrounge up ten votes for a temporary reprieve. And he almost failed to do that.

After his embarrassing defeat, McConnell tried to save face by sending an absurdly belligerent letter to President Biden. In the letter, McConnell stated:

Last night, Republicans filled the leadership vacuum that has troubled the Senate since January. I write to inform you that I will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis.

Talking tough and being tough is not the same thing. When McConnell says he “won’t” help he really means he “can’t” help. He simply doesn’t have the juice anymore.

A weakened McConnell operating out of fear is going to make the next debt limit fight that much more dangerous.