Peter Hamby concludes his Oct 19 Outlook review of Alec MacGillis’s The Cynic, the Political Education of Mitch McConnell by questioning whether the author would have written such a negative appraisal if McConnell were a Democrat. Hamby points out that McConnell’s political skills and tactics, including an encyclopedic knowledge of legislative rules, willingness to abandon previously held positions, and partisanship, are similar to those of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Yet, Hamby notes that Robert Caro called Johnson Master of the Senate in Caro’s book of the same name describing Johnson’s twelve years in the Senate from 1948-60 including his final six as Majority Leader.
Hamby’s implication is that biographers are more likely to excuse or downplay Democratic bullying and hypocrisy. In fact, the vast gulf in their legislative accomplishments better explains the disparate treatment of the two Senate leaders. McConnell is a faithful servant of certain billionaires and has employed his abilities in furtherance of negative goals like limiting President Obama to one-term in office, limiting the reach of the Affordable Care Act, and preventing a hike in the minimum wage.
In contrast, southern democrat Johnson leveraged his populist credentials and deal-making skills to steer through a bitterly divided Senate civil rights legislation that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law. As a senator and then President, Johnson successfully challenged powerful interests on behalf of minorities as well as other poor and working-class Americans. This warrants a much more cynical appraisal of McConnell’s legacy, at least to date, than of Johnson’s.