Trump is right: Mitch McConnell is one of the greatest Senate leaders of all time

tags: Mitch McConnell

Ross K. Baker is distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Basking in the glow of the Senate’s hard-fought confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, President Trump decided to share a portion of his own grandeur with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by dubbing him the “greatest leader in history.” It’s a claim that would certainly be disputed by many historians, who would tip the scales in favor of past majority leaders such as Lyndon B. Johnson, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, George Mitchell and Harry M. Reid, who achieved far more impressive legislative victories.

But 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 position of majority leader dates back slightly more than a century. The first to hold the title was John Worth Kern of Indiana, whose accomplishments include the creation of the Federal Reserve Act, enactment of the federal income tax and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act.

Kern has a decent claim to being not only the first majority leader, but also the greatest. In addition to helping enact seminal progressive legislation, he also fashioned the procedure for terminating debate and subjecting a filibuster to a vote of cloture during the 1917 battle over arming U.S. merchant vessels against German submarine attacks.

Debates over the greatest majority leaders also inevitably bring up Johnson, who became leader in 1955. At the time, it was seen as a risky position: Johnson’s two predecessors as Democratic leader lost their reelection bids. That must have weighed on Johnson, whose grip on his Senate seat in Texas was not especially strong at the time. Plus, he would be going up against a popular president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to protect the Democrats’ New Deal and Fair Deal programs.

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