Mitch McConnell Doesn’t Worry About Looking Bad

Jonathan Bernstein

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Day One of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, filled with arguments over the procedures that will govern the rest of the trial, began under Senate rules at 1 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, and ended at 1:50 AM.

Why? Because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided to get through the trial as quickly as possible, and he mostly has the votes to do it. In fact, in his original resolution filed on Monday, McConnell had divided the 24 hours of arguments from the two sides into two, 12-hour segments, which (given occasional brief breaks and a longer dinner break) would have meant even later nights on Wednesday and Thursday. That marathon arrangement was partially scuttled when some Republicans objected; instead, we’re to have three eight-hour sessions. 

This shows that McConnell is no dictator. The Republican majority runs the Senate, and McConnell does not automatically control anyone’s vote. The steady procession of party-line votes against Democratic amendments all day was somewhat misleading; Republicans (with only one exception on one vote) stuck together because McConnell had found a set of procedures that all of them would support, and had jettisoned anything for which he didn’t have the votes. We know of two such provisions, the scheduling matter and a measure that would have required approval before evidence compiled by the House of Representatives would be admitted to the Senate record. Presumably, McConnell would have come up with procedures that were even more helpful to the president if he had the votes, but he faces limits because four or more Republican senators either want to have something that more resembles a real trial or, perhaps, care about how it looks.

And that gets to a second point: McConnell’s big advantage over everyone else is that he just doesn’t care how anything looks. Or, to put it another way, McConnell acts as though there are zero costs for ugly procedures. And most politicians aren’t like that.

The midnight sessions are a good example. A lot of people (and I can’t say I’m one of them, so I won’t be bashing anyone for this) think that actions taken at or around midnight are inherently suspect. It looks bad, somehow. Most politicians consider that a cost, or at least a risk, and try to avoid it. The House Judiciary Committee adjourned a late-night session in December and gaveled back in the next morning, presumably to avoid being attacked.

McConnell has little to gain by compressing the schedule so much. He easily could have allowed two days for the arguments over procedure, allowing both sessions to conclude at a reasonable hour. Yes, it would have pushed things back a day and marginally increased viewership, but neither of these effects could possibly be terribly important to him. After all, almost everyone who watches more than a small amount of the Senate trial is a die-hard partisan, unlikely to be swayed by what he sees. And a few fewer days of the trial? That wouldn’t have any lasting consequences. So if McConnell thought that making himself vulnerable to charges of acting in the dead of night was even marginally damaging, he wouldn’t do it. And yet, he is.

Just as, of course, he most famously believed that there would be little or no cost to refusing to let the Senate act on President Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee. Just as he believed there would be little or no cost in massively expanding the use of the filibuster in 2009. Just as he decided this week, after saying for a month that it was important to follow the procedures from the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, to rewrite them to Trump’s advantage.

I think it’s not quite true, in other words, that McConnell is more ruthless than others, and certainly not that he’s a more dedicated partisan fighter. I’m not sure he’s more ruthless than the previous Democratic majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, and I’m sure he's no more of a partisan. But Reid, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of her Republican predecessors John Boehner, and every other past Congressional leader I can think of with the possible exception of Newt Gingrich, cared about appearances, and wanted to minimize the criticism that he and his caucus would take for seemingly (or actually) unfair procedures. Of course that doesn’t mean that Reid, Pelosi, Boehner and the rest never used what outsiders considered unfair procedures; each of them did, at times. But each acted as if there were a balancing act to be performed between what they could gain from such an action and what they could lose in public image terms. If McConnell has ever worried about that, I sure haven’t noticed it. 

1. Abby K. Wood at the Monkey Cage on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and its effects on political campaign spending.

2. Sarah Binder, James Goldgeier, and Elizabeth N. Saunders on Congress, the presidency, and foreign policy.

3. Kathryn Dunn Tenpas on all those Trump administration vacancies and their effect on national security policymaking. Important.

4. Josh Huder on why the impeachment trial procedures empower McConnell.

5. Dan Drezner on Trump’s economic diplomacy.

6. Chad Brown on the U.S.-China trade deal.

7. And Michael J. Gerhardt on the Trump team’s memo.

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To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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