It's kind of trivial, perhaps, but one of my favorite odd facts about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — the epic event that produced Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech — is that not one but two college kids in the bobbing sea of faces crammed around the Reflecting Pool listening to King's immortal words would grow up to become U.S. senators many years later.
One future senator would — over the course of his 50-year-long, 1000-1-shot rise to political prominence — remain remarkable true to the expansive vision of that 1963 march, with an almost annoyingly loud but consistent, laser-like focus on expanding economic opportunity and fighting for the working classes.
The other young man in the shadows of MLK grew up to become Mitch McConnell.
Unlike the young Bernie Sanders, McConnell must have been taking a dip in the Reflecting Pool or even dozing off when King said that "with this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." To the contrary, the Kentucky Republican has risen to the pinnacle of U.S. power, as Senate majority leader, by turning up those "jangling discords" to a nearly deafening level — with no moral or ideological compass other than following the Big Money that promises political power in our warped 21st century, with a win-at-all costs mentality that crushes norms of basic democracy that had survived for a couple of centuries. It is Mitch McConnell, more than anyone else in Washington, who has turned the notion of comity into comedy.
The latest episode in McConnell's sad odyssey came this week, when senators from both parties started circulating a bill that would curb the power of the executive branch — now in the person of one Donald John Trump — to fire a Justice Department special counsel such as Robert Mueller, who is probing the events surrounding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the possible role of all the president's men and women, including perhaps Trump himself.
The fire alarms for democracy are clanging all across America. The notion that a president can arbitrarily fire the prosecutor looking at possible criminality in that president's campaign is the power reserved for a dictator, not the leader of a democratic republic. The public gets that — literally hundreds of thousands have pledged to hit the streets if Trump makes a move on Mueller or the deputy attorney general overseeing him, Rod Rosenstein. (Police brass in Pittsburgh even told cops to bring their riot gear to work — an overreaction, but it does speak to the gravity of the potential constitutional crisis.)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't take the threat to our democracy as seriously as the Pittsburgh police. Indeed, the only threat he sees from the tangled politics of Trump and Mueller is the threat to the only thing that matters to McConnell anymore — his 51-49 hold on the Senate majority. He is dead set on using his considerable power over the legislative process to make sure that protecting Mueller and averting this crisis never comes up for a vote, even though it seems that a majority of lawmakers in his upper chamber currently support it.
"We'll not be having this on the floor of the Senate," McConnell told Fox News on Tuesday. His logic is that the bill isn't necessary because he doesn't believe that Trump is planning to fire Mueller. As one of my astute Twitter followers pointed out, the majority leader's stance is akin to refusing to buy car insurance because you have no plans to get into an auto accident anytime in the future. But trying to apply common sense to virtually anything that happens in Congress these days is a waste of time. I've followed politics closely for all of McConnell's career in Washington, and I'm hard pressed to think of anything the Kentuckian stands for — beyond self-preservation.
And yet despite this profile in cowardice — because of it, really — McConnell has cut a swatch of destruction through the now quaint idea that things might happen on Capitol Hill can actually help the American people, rather than helping the 51 or so people who work instead for billionaires and their lobbyists survive the next Election Day.
McConnell was still in the Senate minority — and the GOP's overall prospects looked dim with Barack Obama's sweeping 2008 victory — when a group of key Capitol Hill Republicans gathered in a pricey D.C. steakhouse on the night of the new president's inauguration, January 20, 2009. They mapped out a strategy to use the Senate's filibuster power — the only effective tool Republicans had left — to block any and all legislation, regardless of the merits, and then blame the ensuing gridlock on Obama. The fact that the U.S. economy was in shambles at that very moment, with millions out of work and looking to Washington for help, merely amplified the cruelty.
McConnell wasn't at that meeting, but he quickly became the biggest proponent of this party-above-principle Big Idea. That same year, 2009, in the depths of the economic crisis, McConnell was asked about the top priorities for Senate Republicans. "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," the Kentuckian said, maybe the worst instance of a politician saying the quiet part out loud, at least until Trump arrived at center stage.
Obstruction worked. Republicans gained control of the House in 2011, the Senate in 2015 (making McConnell majority leader) and the White House in 2017. The success of the GOP's cynical gridlock scheme helped inspire the next downward dive for democracy, the torpedoing of Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016. Confirming Garland would have given the High Court a center-left tilt, to be sure — but American voters had empowered Obama to pick new justices when they re-elected him in 2012. McConnell's refusal to give Garland even a hearing — let alone an up-or-down vote — was an unconstitutional power grab.
But he got away with it.
Yet McConnell's machinations to keep the Supreme Court in conservative hands would have been all for naught if Trump had lost the 2016 election. And a Trump defeat certainly would have been more likely if American voters had known — when they went to the polls on November 8, 2016 — how alarmed Obama and other officials were at the extent of Russian interference in the election, or that the FBI had launched a full-blown investigation. But one man stood up and used his power to block that information from coming out that fateful autumn.
That September, top officials including then-FBI director James Comey and Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson went to Capitol Hill pleading for a bipartisan statement about the Russian interference, but McConnell led the opposition, expressing skepticism about both the intelligence and the utility of voters having this information. Most of what we know now about the Russian scheme to aid Trump didn't come out until after Trump had secured 304 electoral votes. And the man you can thank for that is Mitch McConnell.
And so now McConnell is tripling down with his refusal to protect Mueller. It's a reminder that Trump didn't start the fire, that — alarming as his corrupt and autocratic tendencies are — the threat now posed by the 45th president didn't begin in 2015. Rather, it's the culmination of more than a generation of immoral divide-and-conquer politics, incubated in the toxic echo chamber of Fox News and talk radio, and surfed by shallow opportunists like McConnell.