Commentary: Is Mitch McConnell the best Senate leader of all time?

“At the risk of tooting my own horn, look at the majority leaders since L.B.J. and find another one who was able to do something as consequential as this.” — Mitch McConnell, Oct. 27, 2020

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Should Republicans lose U.S. Senate control in next week’s elections, it will be the first significant defeat for Mitch McConnell in many years.

When President Donald Trump’s term began, things didn’t necessarily look rosy for the Kentuckian. The nationalist wing of the party was flourishing and declared McConnell the “face of the establishment” and an obstacle to their populist goals.

Ahead of the 2018 midterms, unhinged provocateurs like Steve Bannon made support for the Senate leader a litmus test in primary elections. After his candidates failed, the disgraced former White House strategist said removing McConnell was as important as defeating Democrats.

McConnell’s celebration of Bannon’s self-immolation — when the “political genius” lost a Senate seat in Alabama by standing behind an accused sex offender  — was classic.

In the real world, some of Trump’s most cherished accomplishments — the 2017 tax cut and record-setting judicial appointments, including three Supreme Court confirmations — are the work of McConnell and conservative leaders.

While former Speaker Paul Ryan undoubtedly led tax reform efforts, McConnell’s ability to keep the confidence of a factious group of Republican senators year after year is remarkable.

Of the hard-fought confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump dubbed McConnell the “greatest leader in history.”

And then came this fall, culminating in the vital court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett Monday night. McConnell and his stalwart team — Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley, in particular — carried the day.

Democrats deride McConnell’s effectiveness, deeming his skills “obstructionist.” But when Barack Obama was president, even legacy media proclaimed McConnell a dealmaker. They could not deny his brilliant tactical skills or that he knows how to effectively exercise power.

His greatness is in achieving essential objectives, like reclaiming the majority in 2014 and turning a liberal advantage on the high court into a conservative majority.

A professor writing two years ago in the Washington Post remarked:

“Greatness ought to be judged by the tactical skills of majority leaders as well as how many objectives they achieve. By either standard, McConnell is among the most effective of Senate leaders. He has resolutely pursued what he calls the ‘long game,’ angling to have influence decades after he has left office. And his moves have largely achieved their objectives. While many on the left view McConnell’s legacy as the destruction of the Senate and its norms, they should, however grudgingly, acknowledge his skills.”

The Kentucky senator often is, as Jonah Goldberg explained a few days ago, the only adult in the room.

McConnell, who turns 79 early next year, was deputy assistant attorney general for President Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977. He is the longest-serving U.S. senator in Kentucky history and the longest-serving leader of Senate Republicans.

After time as a lawyer and county executive, the Alabama native was first elected to the Senate alongside President Ronald Reagan’s reelection in 1984. He became majority whip almost 20 years later. In 2006, he was elected party leader. On Tuesday, he seeks his seventh term.

He’s also a survivor — not just politically. McConnell fractured his shoulder after falling at home last year, underwent triple heart bypass surgery in 2003, and battled polio as a child.

Now opponents want information on his bruised hands. Is that because “Cocaine Mitch” has given out so many beat downs in recent years?

McConnell’s pragmatism was on display in 2016 when he intrepidly vowed to keep Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat open through the presidential election Trump surprisingly won. He emphasized opposite-party configuration.

When a sudden vacancy occurred this September, McConnell was far from circumspect; he promised to move promptly to fill Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg’s seat. And he did it on Hillary Clinton’s birthday, no less.

His position is constitutional and consistent. As the leader said four years ago, if the shoe were on the other foot, a Democrat Senate would not confirm a Republican president‘s nominee if the vacancy occurred in an election year. It’s been 132 years since a different party from the president confirmed a Supreme Court nominee in an election year.

So I ask: has any Senate leader been more successful?