Trump and McConnell: The powerbrokers

How the president and Senate majority leader learned to like each other — and get results

President Trump and Mitch McConnell.
(Image credit: Illustrated | krishh/iStock, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Justice Brett Kavanaugh has taken his seat on the Supreme Court. Much of the credit goes to America's Republican odd couple: President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It is hard to think of two party leaders who are more different. McConnell is taciturn while Trump is bombastic. McConnell has mastered the Senate arcana Trump disdains. Trump tweets and McConnell … would rather the president didn't. The pair even engaged in a high-profile public feud for much of last year.

But at some point, Trump and McConnell more or less buried the hatchet, working together on a massive tax reform bill and then to help put together a field of Republican Senate candidates who might just be strong enough to withstand the blue wave that threatens to wash away the GOP's House majority. But muscling through Kavanaugh on a 50-48 vote might just be their biggest shared accomplishment.

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Yes, Trump needed outside help to seal the deal. In the hours before the final vote, George W. Bush had more cachet with wavering Republicans than does the current president. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) provided the critical votes, and they are clearly not the biggest Trump fans.

Nevertheless, given the fate of Harriet Miers, would Bush have held firm if this was his nominee? We know Trump did. In fact, he vigorously defended Kavanaugh against his accusers, including the most credible of them, Christine Blasey Ford.

Trump's pro-Kavanaugh campaign worked. "For all the talk about white women shifting against Trump, [a Democratic] strategist says that many red-state white women came to see Kavanaugh as a sympathetic figure who is being 'railroaded," writes Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent. "The strategist tells me these women associated this battle with their own husbands, sons, and grandsons, asking themselves: 'Why should 35-year-old accusations that are uncorroborated derail his entire career?'"

Republicans have unquestionably rallied since Trump abandoned his early uncharacteristic restraint and took the gloves off. Kavanaugh recognized it, saying at Monday night's ceremonial swearing-in, "Mr. President, thank you for everything."

Trump also praised the leadership of his partner in getting Kavanaugh confirmed: McConnell. "He truly has done an incredible and wonderful job for the American people." Kavanaugh thanked the Kentucky Republican too.

For all their stylistic differences, Trump and McConnell have two characteristics in common: political ruthlessness and an interest in advancing a conservative judiciary. McConnell kept Antonin Scalia's seat vacant for a year rather than hold hearings on Merrick Garland so he could prevent the erosion of the Supreme Court's conservative bloc. That opening was the reason many reluctant Republicans voted for Trump, who has in turned worked to keep his campaign promise on judges.

Would Bob Dole, Bill Frist, or the hapless Trent Lott have played that kind of hardball? Probably not. But today, Trump is president, McConnell is majority leader, and 5-4 conservative Supreme Court has been solidified for a generation.

The Trump-McConnell strategy is not without risks. It invites further escalations from Democrats in their hostility to Republican judicial nominees, in an era when Anthony Kennedy would probably receive the Robert Bork treatment. Such raw power politics sit uneasily next to the conservative conception of judges as umpires who call balls and strikes, with liberals increasingly disputing the existence of a neutral strike zone. There is also the long-term problem of how the celebratory tone taken after defeating a sexual assault accuser in the political realm will play with the suburban women Republicans need to keep winning.

For now, however, Trump has succeeded where even Ronald Reagan failed: getting a reliable conservative installed in the Kennedy seat. He continues to say that filling high court vacancies is the most important decision a president can make short of war and peace. McConnell has reminded conservatives of his value to them. "I think that's the biggest hand he's ever received," Trump said in response to a standing ovation for McConnell.

That's how a populist insurgent president teamed with the face of the Republican establishment to remake the Supreme Court. And they're probably not done yet.

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