Published November 16, 2022
In a town full of politicians, many of whom seem to care more about getting on cable TV than the art of legislating, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky stands out. His tenure as Senate Republican leader has been marked by a tight grip over the caucus and a mastery of legislative minutia.
From obstructing progressive goals under then-President Barack Obama to holding the line on the Supreme Court seat formerly held by Justice Antonin Scalia, many conservative wins can be attributed to the 80-year-old Kentuckian who clearly places political efficacy over personal popularity.
At the same time, his relatively narrow ambition has never made him a heartthrob of the more-ideologically committed wings of the party. Instead of trying to marshal his caucus around a positive vision for his party, McConnell has tended to savvily, if cynically, assess that voters want a party that first and foremost promises to halt the excesses of the other side.
According to Axios, for example, McConnell told party leaders and donors last year that putting out policy priorities in advance of the 2022 midterms would be a mistake. It’s no accident a major biography of McConnell is called “The Cynic.”
In the wake of this month’s disappointing midterm election, McConnell’s leadership has lost its appeal for some on the right. Elected Republicans looking for a villain to blame for Senate losses in Arizona, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, and unwilling to test the wrath of the man whose endorsement swayed the nomination in those states, have set their sights on McConnell. Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas and other conservative activists called for his reelection as Senate Republican leader, usually a formality, to be delayed.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a former health care executive and Florida governor, made no secret of his desire to wrest control of the Republican caucus from McConnell, and picked up a major endorsement from former President Donald Trump on the way. On Wednesday, his longshot bid was unsuccessful. Republicans who care about developing an agenda that appeals to voters –not to mention their party’s political future – should be grateful Scott’s attempt came up short.
In the short term, it means keeping an effective, if bloodless, leader at the helm. Yes, many would like to see a more pugilistic style, but no one can gainsay McConnell’s deft knowledge of Senate procedure, including his commitment to preserving the filibuster against then-President Donald Trump’s call to end it.
Meanwhile, Scott’s tenure as head of the Republican Senate campaign arm raised serious questions about his leadership, with expensive gambles costing millions and senators calling for audits into where the money was spent. Scott, in turn, has charged McConnell with poor decisions that led to the disappointing midterms results, and blamed his predecessors for outsized spending.
More fundamentally, Scott is the perfect example of a Republican politician who has seemingly learned all the wrong lessons from the Trump earthquake of 2016. Earlier this year, he sought to establish himself as a thought leader with an 11-point plan for a Republican agenda. The document was heavy on culture war bombast, but also suggested Congress should “stop spending money on non-essential state and local projects until the budget is balanced,” refuse to raise the debt limit, “sell off all non-essential government asset, buildings, and land,” and force every federal piece of legislation to expire after five years.
Most famously, he initially sought to have the half of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax have some “skin in the game.” As Democrats and Sen. McConnell himself pointed out, that would mean a tax hike on many working-class Americans, something that flies in the face of traditional Republican messaging and priorities. On top of that, requiring Social Security and Medicare to come up for a vote every five years would crater the GOP’s credibility with seniors.
Scott’s is a vision of government that has more in common with the Ayn Rand-inspired libertarianism that fueled prior generations of the GOP than the more working-class friendly ideas that have begun to reshape the party over the past six years.
The tensions on display this week foreshadow a bigger divide that will face the Republican Party. It was no accident which Senators were loudest in calling for a leadership vote – the younger, more populist ones, several of whom seek a more working-class friendly agenda like pro-family tax credits or supporting more non-college pathways to work.
Trump and Scott, on the other hand, wanted a new hand at the reins to more faithfully execute a MAGA-influenced approach to Capitol Hill politics. But the Scott approach would be for the Republican Party to double down on unpopular economic priorities, like those in his 11-point plan, and to try to pour them into the new wineskins of aggressive culture war rhetoric.
McConnell, who was reelected to his seventh term as senator in 2020, will be needing to hand the reins off at some point soon – and the younger voices are right to look for a leader who can tell America not just what the Republican Party is against, but what it is for.
In many respects, the state of Florida’s two senators offers very different directions for where the party may go. Scott’s vision for the party would have embraced MAGA overtones to advance toxically unpopular economic policies.
His Sunshine State counterpart Rubio, however, has been engaged in the work of fleshing out a new agenda for the GOP. His time in office, and resounding election-night win, shows the potential of marrying smart cultural populism with an agenda that actually responds to the needs of working-class parents, and shows how Republicans can play a constructive role in helping guide federal policymaking. A vision like that should be what guides the GOP in the future.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.