I just finished reading Barack Obama’s book, “A Promised Land,” and it made me think that if Jesus Christ descended upon the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell would immediately say that he would make him a one-term savior. While Barack Obama may not be a savior, in many ways, he is about as good as it can get for a U.S. president. His commitment to the common good, to integrity and ethics, to protecting individual liberties are remarkable in an era of cynicism and alternate realities.
There is the sorrow throughout the book of a man who ascends to the highest office in the world, and then finds that in many ways he is powerless, or with very limited power. The reasons are complicated, but most involve other actors on the stage, not him. Those who oppose his vision and his policies are widespread and varied. They range from Mitch and the Republican Gang to members of his own party to foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin or even Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, most people on our planet are much more interested in exercising and expanding their individual liberties (certainly a key part of the U.S. Constitution), than they are in promoting the common good (a term that is now coming in vogue with progressives, but is absent from the Constitution).
There is one individual who stands out as Dr. No. That, of course, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He is like an ambidextrous pitcher. When he is in the minority, he can threaten and then orchestrate the filibuster to stop the consideration of virtually any legislation that is put before the Senate. When he is in the majority, he can refuse to assign bills to committee; nix bills that escape from committee to come to the floor of the Senate and forbid votes on bills that do come before the full Senate. He controls his Republican colleagues as Putin controls his Politburo. He is the Vince Lombardi of legislative leaders – discipline, discipline, discipline. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. And that leaves the president of the United States virtually powerless except for those rare occasions when he may agree with McConnell, such as the naming of a post office in Kentucky.
There are those who would say that McConnell was Dr. No with Obama because he wanted to obstruct any successes that an African-American could possibly have. While race was clearly part of the motivation, the primary reason why McConnell does what he does is because he is just plain mean.
Presently, tens of millions of Americans, perhaps more, are suffering because of the coronavirus and the economic hardships that emanate from a listless governmental response to COVID-19. The Democratically-controlled House of Representatives has passed a myriad of bills to aid people including extended unemployment insurance, paycheck protection, assistance to state and local governments. All the bills sit listlessly in the Senate. Mitch McConnell is not inclined to negotiate seriously with Nancy Pelosi. For all intents and purposes, he is unanimously backed by the other Republicans penguins in the Senate.
The meanness of McConnell, his personification of The Republican Brain, as described so brilliantly by Washington Post reporter Chris Mooney in 2012, makes progress a non-starter. It is virtually impossible for anyone with empathy to understand how and why McConnell does what he does. His meanness, his insensitivity is so ingrained that if someone the likes of Jesus Christ happened upon the Senate, McConnell would immediately invoke a strategy to make him a one-term savior.
It’s remarkable how restrained Obama is in his book. The passion to change is there; the commitment to promoting the common good is there, but there is the underlying sadness of how the Mitch McConnells of the world did not even want to give him a chance. It’s remarkable that Obama, or any Democrat, is ever elected president of the United States.
The advancement that progressives want will only come when Democrats and others have a better understanding of the McConnells, and can craft ways to reach them. The best answer is in reforming our schools to make them more empathetic, but that is a long-term project.