Opinion

McConnell will make a stimulus deal to boost Senate Republicans — but not Trump?

Why the Senate majority leader's first priority is always the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has decided he supports a second, likely smaller round of pandemic stimulus checks for the American public. That in itself is not surprising: McConnell is not an ideological purist, and the unprecedented circumstances of this crisis have elicited support for checks from far more fiscally conservative corners.

The more interesting question, then, is: Why now? President Trump wanted the second set of checks — bearing his name — to go out shortly before the election. He appeared to think, in the style of the old boss politics, that Trump-branded stimulus could win him some swing voters, and he may well have been right.

Yet McConnell never let Trump test that theory, a curious move by a GOP Senate leader toward a GOP president. So why now? Did McConnell suddenly realize the American people are in need? Did he deliberately sabotage Trump because he wanted him to lose? I suspect the answer is more mundane: McConnell could and would have worked with a re-elected Trump. But he doesn't need Trump for his primary agenda, which is simply to run a Republican-majority Senate.

This isn't so much speculation as McConnell's account of himself. "What do you see as your role, the majority leader's role, in a time of crisis?" he was asked by a New York Times journalist last year (the crisis in question then was a government shutdown). "Well," McConnell answered, "I think what I have to do, my goal, and depending upon what the numbers are, and what's achievable, is always to get as right-of-center an outcome as possible."

McConnell continued. "I mean, at the risk of sounding like I'm patting myself on the back, who would have ever thought with Barack Obama in the White House you could get something like the Budget Control Act in August of 2011, which actually drove down government spending for two years in a row?" he said. "To me, given the numbers, and if you prefer America right of center, that's my definition of success."

There are three elements of what McConnell wants here. First, he wants a GOP-held Senate, from which flows the other two elements: "as right-of-center an outcome as possible" and himself in charge. He cannot be in charge unless the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party, and what he'll do while in charge — pragmatically pursuing whatever not-left result he considers most feasible — is pretty much the sum of McConnell's political commitments.

There really doesn't seem to be much more to it. McConnell would like the government to be smaller, all things being equal, but he's hardly a budget hawk. One does not think of him as an immigration hardliner like Trump or his adviser Stephen Miller. McConnell doesn't come to mind in the roster of warmongers like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) or Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). (He reportedly privately advised then-President George W. Bush to withdraw from Iraq in 2006 for electoral benefit while publicly bashing Democrats who called for the war to end.) He doesn't have anything like the Tea Party streak of Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) or Rand Paul (R-Ky.), nor the nationalist, natalist social conservatism of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). He doesn't even have the classic corporate Republican vibe of a Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

McConnell just ... is. He lives to do exactly what he does. He is the consummate party man, not loyal to his party regardless of political alignment but certainly scrupulously adaptable about what alignments he is willing to support. McConnell can work with a Rockefeller, Reagan, or Trump Republican Party. He can deal with Tea Partiers and populists, Bible thumpers and Wall Streeters — whoever's winning. To seek "as right-of-center an outcome as possible" is a task with many avenues to triumph. Wherever the center moves, McConnell can dodge just to the right of it, use his fabled parliamentary prowess to secure some wins, and go to bed each night a contented man.

The one real threat then is loss of the Senate majority, and this is the threat McConnell now faces. The two Republican incumbent senators subject to runoff votes in Georgia early next month "are getting hammered" on the stimulus check issue, McConnell reportedly said on a strategy call with GOP senators. Republican backing of the new checks may be necessary for them to beat their Democratic challengers. As at least one of those two victories is required for McConnell to stay majority leader, the checks get his support.

Trump's win was no such necessity. No doubt McConnell prefers to have a Republican president, as this enables him to approve judicial nominees as right-of-center as possible. But McConnell has never looked like a Trump loyalist. "Enabling" Trump or "reining him in" is, I suspect, somewhat beside the point for McConnell except insofar as it affects his own retention of Senate leadership. McConnell will work with Trump, as with any Republican, to get those not-left outcomes. He will flatter him if he must and make use of his popularity. And — as is evident in McConnell's recognition this week of Biden's win and directive to other GOP senators to do likewise — he will drop Trump when he's no longer useful.

Before the election, backing the stimulus was neither the most right-of-center possible outcome nor a necessity to ensure McConnell kept his role. Now, the checks are needed in a way they weren't two months ago. McConnell has demonstrated himself willing to throw money at voters for the sake of GOP Senate seats. But the presidency, with an incumbent McConnell may have realized was headed for a loss regardless of any stimulus checks, is another matter.

Mitch McConnell is and wants to remain the Republican Senate Majority leader. He appears to have determined he no longer needs Trump for that end.

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