Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are a study in contrasts, striking emblems of two very different ways to do politics. Trump is a showman and a narcissist, someone who hungers to always be at the center of attention even if his actions yield little results. His mangled attempt to veto the recent stimulus package is prime evidence of how his ability to hold the spotlight is inversely related to success in shaping policy. McConnell, on the other hand, is a creature of the back rooms. He loves to slink in the shadows and cares little about publicity. Rare among national politicians, he’s never shown any signs of wanting to run for president. He’s become one of the most effective American politicians of his era by his cagey ability to game the rules of the Senate, mainly to obstruct Democratic policy and to stack the judiciary in favor of Republican nominees.
In the twilight days of 2020, a political struggle over a $2,000 stimulus check highlights how extraordinarily pernicious McConnell is. It also creates an opportunity, just as Trump is about to leave the presidency, for Democrats to elevate McConnell to being their primary foil—the politician who more than anyone else is holding America back.
The $2,000 stimulus check is a proposal that enjoys unusually widespread political support. On Monday, the House passed a measure to increase stimulus checks to that amount by a vote of 275-134. All but two Democrats in the House voted for the bill, along with 44 Republicans. Donald Trump has repeatedly indicated support for a $2,000 check. In the Senate, five Republicans have come out in favor, including both Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Loeffler and Perdue are trying to hold on to their seats in highly competitive runoff elections in Georgia. Their support of the measure is motived in no small part by an awareness of how popular it is with voters. According to a Data for Progress poll, fully 78 percent of Americans support the measure—including 74 percent of Republicans. Given these numbers, it’s likely that if the measure were put to a vote on the Senate floor, it would get more than 60 votes and pass easily.
The main roadblock is McConnell, who is trying his hardest to make sure the measure never gets to a vote. The New York Times reports that on Tuesday McConnell
blocked an effort to hold an immediate vote to increase stimulus checks to $2,000, saying instead that the Senate would “begin a process” to consider bigger payments, along with other demands issued by President Trump, leaving the fate of the measure unclear as more Republicans clamored to endorse it.
McConnell did not elaborate further on how—or when—the Senate would move to consider Mr. Trump’s demands, which the president made on Sunday after finally agreeing to sign a $900 billion stimulus package and government spending bill into law. Mr. Trump had held the package hostage for days, insisting that lawmakers increase the direct payments to $2,000 from $600, remove a legal shield for companies like YouTube and Facebook and investigate “very substantial voter fraud.”
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By linking the $2,000 check to Trump’s pet projects—investigation into baseless claims of electoral fraud and ending of legal immunity for social media outlets under a legislation known as Section 230—McConnell is cannily using the president as a shield for his own policy preferences. “This all but assures $2K checks fail,” Sahil Kupar of NBC News noted. “Notably, Trump didn’t demand these three be combined.” Trump had initially tried to have the legal shield repeal linked to passage of National Defense Authorization Act—a move McConnell opposed.
By bringing up these old Trump hobbyhorses and tying them to the $2,000 checks, McConnell is reverting to the familiar obstructionist cynicism that characterized his actions in the Obama presidency. The new package is a poison pill, designed not to be passed. Although the Democrats might be advised to call McConnell’s bluff: Section 230 is enshrined in NAFTA, so it wouldn’t be easy to rescind. Further, an investigation into election fraud would yield no results, since it’s clear there was no fraud in the 2020 election. As David Dayen of The American Prospect suggests, it would make sense to agree to McConnell’s absurd terms just to get the $2,000 checks out the door.
Writing in The New Republic in 2019, Alex Pareene described McConnell as “the great avatar of the decades-long enclosure of our public life by money.” Pareene went on to argue that McConnell lacks any firm ideological commitments apart from a desire to bolster plutocracy and keep Republicans in power. This indifference to ideology helps him when negotiating with those who actually care about policy outcomes.
“McConnell, as a political nihilist, always has an advantage over people determined to prove things work: It’s much easier to simply make things not work, if the only outcome you care about is electoral,” Pareene observed. “So Republicans in Congress painstakingly drew out the negotiations over the Obama agenda while stigmatizing the results as rank political perfidy.”
Over the past five years, Democrats have directed far more ire at Trump than at McConnell. To be sure, there was a well-funded—but ultimately quixotic—effort to unseat the senator in 2020. But in terms of national party rhetoric, it is Trump who has been treated as the dangerous authoritarian determined to destroy democracy, while McConnell has been accorded the respect due a normal partisan foe. Biden, in particular, has emphasized that “there are things” he and McConnell “can work together on.”
This normalization of McConnell was perhaps justified when Trump remained a serious threat. But Trump is on the way out. More than most lame-duck presidents, Trump has become the incredible shrinking commander in chief, diminishing more and more each day.
Now is the time for Democrats to start treating McConnell as what he really is: a ruthless partisan who games the system in a way that makes political negotiations impossible. By turning the spotlight on McConnell’s underhanded tactics, Democrats will have a better argument for their own senatorial candidates, both in the Georgia runoffs and in the 2022 midterms.
The Democrats need to make it clear that so long as the GOP is in thrall to McConnell, America is doomed to gridlock and weak governance. The stimulus fight gives them the perfect chance to start making this case.