How Mitch McConnell Made the Senate Worse: Republican power grabs and hyperpartisanship are just part of his grim reign as Senate Republican leader.

AuthorOrnstein, Norman
PositionThe Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America

The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America

by Ira Shapiro Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 294 pp.

I met Ira Shapiro in 1976, when I joined a Senate committee as staff designee for Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson; Ira was working for Nelson at the time, and we became friends. (We still are.) Ira worked in the Senate over decades, crafting the body's code of ethics and serving as chief of staff to West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller; he moved on to distinguished service as general counsel to America's trade representative and to law practice, but he never lost his love for the Senate and its people. His first book, The Last Great Senate, reflected on the way the body functioned in its halcyon days, when we both worked there, with norms dedicated to solving national problems even as its structure and rules made it difficult and at times impossible (see, for example, civil rights). A large number of great statesmen--and an occasional stateswoman--elevated the discourse and when necessary rose above partisanship and pettiness.

By Shapiro's second book, his view of the Senate had changed; the title, Broken, made that clear. It wasn't that the Senate was bereft of quality individuals who might have been considered giants in a different era--it was the overall political dynamic, including political polarization and the decline of the center, the rise of tribal media and social media, and the willingness especially of Republicans, from their first majority in decades during Ronald Reagan's presidency up to Donald Trump's first year in the White House, to shred norms that had characterized the Senate of the 1960s and '70s, making a focus on the essential problems of the nation more and more difficult to resolve. Shapiro also put a spotlight on the role of Mitch McConnell.

If Broken at least had a modestly hopeful side--the wish and belief that somehow the Senate could find its way back to some semblance of its former self--his third book, The Betrayal, has none of that, and the spotlight on McConnell gets brighter and sharper and bleaker. Shapiro defines his thesis this way: "The story of the Senate's rot is first and foremost the story of Mitch McConnell." Toward the end, he describes McConnell with some admiration for his considerable skills, but with a damning summation:

McConnell was no "political hack"; he was a superb political strategist and tactician who had never lost an election. He successfully...

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