McConnell Retires From Leadership

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From the The Morning Dispatch on The Dispatch

Happy Friday! Although he’s arguably the biggest global superstar in professional baseball, Shohei Ohtani is also incredibly reclusive and enigmatic. Last season, he abruptly stopped talking to reporters with two months to go in the season. In December, he refused for weeks to reveal the name of his new dog to fans. And yesterday, he announced on Instagram simply that he “wanted everyone to know [he is] now married” to “someone from [his] native country.”

We’ll see how long that lasts, though, after he answered paparazzi questions about his new wife by describing her as just “a normal Japanese woman.”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Dozens of Palestinian civilians were killed and hundreds injured in northern Gaza on Thursday as roughly 30 aid trucks delivered materials to a crowd of thousands, though the exact details of what occurred were not immediately clear due to conflicting reports. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry reported that more than 110 Palestinians were killed in a “massacre” as Israeli troops opened fire on the crowd swarming the convoy. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), meanwhile, said the majority of casualties and injuries resulted from a stampede that led to people being run over by the supply vehicles—though the IDF acknowledged that its forces fired on Gazans who approached Israeli troops and tanks shortly after the incident. Following the event, President Joe Biden yesterday walked back his prediction that a ceasefire agreement could be reached by Monday, and discussed the situation—which the White House referred to as an “alarming incident”—separately with both Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in a speech on Thursday that sending NATO troops to Ukraine could result in nuclear retaliation. “Now the consequences for the interventionists will be much more tragic,” he said in remarks delivered to the Russian parliament. “We too have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. This really threatens a conflict with nuclear weapons, and thus the destruction of civilization.” Putin has threatened nuclear war in the past, but his latest saber-rattling follows comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this week that Europe could not “exclude” the possibility of sending ground troops to Ukraine. Macron stood by those comments on Thursday, saying, “Every one of the words that I say on this issue is weighed, thought through, and measured.”

  • The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, showed that prices rose 0.3 percent from December to January, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported Thursday, up from December’s month-over-month increase of 0.1 percent. The annual increase fell to 2.4 percent in January, down from a 2.6 percent year-over-year increase one month earlier. After stripping out more volatile food and energy prices, core PCE increased at a 0.4 percent rate from December to January, up from 0.1 percent in December, marking the largest growth in the metric in a year. The Federal Reserve’s next meeting is set for March 19 and 20, and central bankers are widely expected to hold interest rates steady as inflation persists.

  • The Alabama state legislature on Thursday approved legislation protecting patients and doctors involved with in vitro fertilization (IVF) from liability if created embryos are damaged or destroyed. The steps to safeguard IVF followed a state Supreme Court ruling protecting frozen embryos under the state’s wrongful death law. The bills were passed almost unanimously in both chambers, though wording differences between the Alabama House and Senate versions must be worked out before a version can be sent to Gov. Kay Ivey, who is expected to sign IVF protections into law.

  • A federal judge blocked a Texas law on Thursday that would have empowered state police to arrest migrants suspected of illegally entering the country. “If allowed to proceed, SB 4 could open the door to each state passing its own version of immigration laws,” Judge David Alan Ezra wrote in an order granting a preliminary injunction. Also on Thursday, President Biden and former President Donald Trump separately visited Texas to discuss the ongoing migrant crisis. Trump met with Gov. Greg Abbott and delivered remarks in Eagle Pass, Texas, while Biden toured border areas in Brownsville, Texas, with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The current president urged his predecessor to encourage Republicans in Congress to take action on the issue.

  • Former Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Libertarian, announced on Thursday he will compete in the GOP primary for Senate in Michigan. “After thoroughly evaluating all aspects of a potential campaign, I’m convinced that no candidate would be better positioned to win both the Republican primary and the general election,” he tweeted yesterday. “We need a principled, consistent constitutional conservative in the Senate—someone with a record of taking on the bipartisan oligarchy, defending sound money and free speech, fighting the surveillance state and military-industrial complex, and protecting all our rights.” He joins former Republican Reps. Mike Rogers and Peter Meijer in the race for retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s seat.

McConnell’s Next Chapter

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rides in an elevator as he leaves the U.S. Capitol Building on February 27, 2024. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rides in an elevator as he leaves the U.S. Capitol Building on February 27, 2024. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rose to give a speech from the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, the chamber was—as it often is—practically empty. But this was no standard floor speech. “One of life’s most unappreciated talents is knowing when it’s time to move on to life’s next chapter,” McConnell said. “So I stand before you today, Mr. President and my colleagues, to say this will be my last term as Republican leader of the Senate.”

McConnell’s decision to step away from leadership was both a surprise to his colleagues and entirely expected. The 82-year-old giant of the Senate—the longest-serving party leader in the chamber’s history, having won nine straight elections to the role and served for nearly 17 years—has dealt with several health issues in recent months, stoking questions about how much longer he’d be fit to lead his conference. While the old-school, Reagan Republican leaves a legacy as the man who engineered a conservative Supreme Court for a generation, he has also spent the last several years of his career watching populist isolationism take over his party, putting him increasingly out of step with its new vanguard. The race to replace him is already on, and laying bare the fault lines dividing the Senate Republican conference.

After McConnell dropped his bombshell, colleagues trickled into the chamber, shaking his hand and embracing the adept deal-cutter who’s led the Senate Republican Conference since 2006. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer embraced his counterpart. After hugging McConnell, Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona reportedly wiped away tears, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine delivered impromptu remarks thanking the Republican leader for devoting his life to public service. “I don’t think anyone expected it was going to be yesterday,” GOP Sen. Marco Rubio told TMD on Thursday when asked if he was surprised by McConnell’s announcement.

But McConnell isn’t packing up his office just yet. During his speech, he told colleagues he’d be stepping down only as leader in November. He’ll still serve out the rest of his term, which expires in 2027, “albeit from a different seat,” he said, gesturing to the desks for the rank-and-file. “And I’m actually looking forward to that.”

McConnell has thus far been mum about whether he’ll seek reelection to his Senate seat. If he ran and won, he’d be in his late 80s by the time the next term began—not that age has stopped fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, 90, from serving. It hasn’t stopped President Joe Biden either, who served many years alongside McConnell in the Senate and is nine months McConnell’s junior. The president expressed disappointment Wednesday at hearing McConnell was stepping down as leader. “I’ve trusted him, and we have a great relationship,” he said. “We fight like hell. But he has never, never, never misrepresented anything.”

The shock of his announcement aside, the writing was nevertheless on the wall that McConnell’s time as leader was coming to an end, with the last several months being marked by very public health struggles. In the spring of last year, McConnell—who survived polio as a child and walks with a slight limp—suffered a head injury after falling, apparently not for the first time, at an event in D.C. and spent six weeks at home recovering. In July, he froze mid-sentence during a press conference, unable to speak or move for 19 seconds. In August, it happened again. Aides have claimed that his decision not to run for leader again predates his fall last March and the frightening freezing episodes.

In his speech on Wednesday, McConnell recalled how, when he arrived in the Senate 40 years ago, he was “just happy if anyone remembered [his] name.” President Ronald Reagan, he said, once called him Mitch O’Donnell: “Close enough, I thought.” If posterity remembers Mitch McConnell’s name, it will likely be for his successful effort to engineer a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that will endure for a generation. In February 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died, giving then-President Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint a justice in his place. Not so fast. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” McConnell said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” And indeed it wasn’t, as McConnell refused for months to hold a hearing for Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. Two weeks after then-President Donald Trump was sworn in, he nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy—the first of three conservative appointees McConnell shepherded to the bench during the Trump era.

Even McConnell’s detractors, like Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, give McConnell credit for that outcome. “His supreme moment of leadership was after the tragic death of Scalia, where he immediately said, ‘Let’s let the American people decide,’” Johnson told reporters Thursday. “That was the right call, and the American people did decide. And from my standpoint, they decided correctly, and we have a more conservative court.” The last Trump nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, was confirmed mere days before the 2020 election—a classic example of McConnell’s political maneuvering that prioritized Republican success above all.

But their SCOTUS appointment victories aside, Trump and McConnell were uneasy partners. As majority leader throughout Trump’s term, McConnell refused to budge on his support for the legislative filibuster, stymying a number of the president’s wishes. And after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, McConnell was reportedly ready to vote to convict the former president, permanently barring him from office. But that didn’t happen, at least in part for reasons having to do with McConnell’s position as leader, as The Dispatch’s John McCormack reported on the three-year anniversary of the impeachment acquittal:

McConnell’s view that Trump had committed impeachable acts was reported by the New York Times on January 12, 2021. But that same day, the conservative judge J. Michael Luttig published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that an impeachment trial conducted after Trump had left office would be unconstitutional. For at least a couple of reasons, however, Luttig’s reasoning was dubious. […] Despite its flaws, Luttig’s legal theory was a politically convenient off-ramp that a majority of Senate Republicans, and McConnell himself, ultimately took on their way to acquitting Trump. A longtime McConnell adviser told Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin that the majority leader “saw [conviction] wasn’t going to happen,” and that he “wasn’t going to be a leader who stood with 15 percent of the caucus.”

Three years later, McConnell’s speech stepping away from leadership revealed him as a man increasingly out of step with the party he spent his career serving. He mentioned Reagan no fewer than five times in his eight-minute-long remarks, even pointing out that he and his wife, Elaine Chao, who served as Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush and Secretary of Transportation under Trump, were married on Reagan’s birthday. Tellingly, though, he didn’t mention or even allude to Trump a single time, an indication of just how profoundly the former president has transformed the party of McConnell’s youth into the party it is today. McConnell and Trump have reportedly not spoken once since December 2020.

McConnell pointed to the Reagan years as key to his continued belief in the “key role [the U.S. plays] as the leader of the free world.” That foundation, he said, fueled his efforts earlier this month to pass the national security supplemental, which contained aid for Ukraine, the Indo-pacific, and Israel. Trump publicly opposed the measure, urging his allies to vote against it. It was the only legislative accomplishment McConnell explicitly mentioned during his speech.

But the battle to pass that bill, now languishing in the House, was bruising: Besides himself, only 21 of McConnell’s 48 Republican colleagues voted in favor of the aid, and many regularly espouse positions that directly contradict McConnell’s Reaganesque view of America as the “shining city on a hill,” projecting “peace through strength.” Of the 17 Republicans elected after 2018, only two voted in favor of additional aid. Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas—who was elected to the Senate in 2020 and has flip-flopped on support for Ukraine—told reporters Thursday that he was ready for a leader who reflected a different set of values. “We need leadership, but they’ve got to be committed to the same priorities as the American people,” he said. “It seems like to me that Ukraine is more important than securing our own border, that giving the military unlimited money, without any accountability, is more important than balancing the budget.”

An account for the right-wing House Freedom Caucus trolled McConnell in a post on Wednesday. “Our thoughts are with our Democrat colleagues in the Senate on the retirement of their Co-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (D-Ukraine),” the group tweeted.

McConnell—who has long viewed 19th-century Kentucky lawmaker Henry Clay’s “combination of compromise and principle” as a model for his own career—was clear-eyed about the state of the GOP on Wednesday, just as he was when he voted not to convict the former president. “Believe me,” he said, “I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them.” Nevertheless, he said he was ready to cede the floor to the next generation of Republican leadership.

The leadership change may not be quite the generational shift it’s cracked up to be. The three leading candidates to succeed McConnell are longtime deputies who are conveniently, or maybe confusingly, three older white guys all named John. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, previously the conference whip under McConnell, is 72; Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the GOP conference chair, is 71; and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the current whip and the youngster of the bunch, is 63. All three have endorsed Trump in 2024.

Cornyn was the first to officially jump in the race. “We will improve communication, increase transparency, and ensure inclusion of every Member’s expertise and opinion,” he said in a statement Thursday. “We will restore the important role of Senate committees and reestablish the regular appropriations process, rather than lurch from one crisis to another. And we will return power back to our members; there will be no more backroom deals or forced votes on bills without adequate time for review, debate, and amendment.”

Thune is reportedly soft-launching his leadership bid, calling colleagues to “discuss the future of the Senate Republican Conference and what they would like to see in their next leader,” according to a spokesperson. Barrasso has yet to formally make any moves.

When asked Thursday who he would be supporting for leader, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina made it easy: “A guy named John!” he quipped. It’s a less descriptive answer than he thinks, though, since some 10 percent of the Senate answers to “John” or “Jon.”

Many Republican senators—including Rubio (who has himself been floated as a contender), Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri—indicated on Wednesday that they were gearing up for a long process ahead of the November decision and declined to say who they may support. Trump has not been so circumspect, however, reportedly encouraging National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines to run.

While he didn’t rule it out, Daines said Thursday that he told Trump “the most important thing I can do this moment is to make sure we have a Senate majority in November.” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is another potential wildcard contender, as is Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who challenged McConnell for the role in 2022. Sen. Ron Johnson has said he intends to hold a conference of his fellow Republican members in the coming weeks. “I don’t want a beauty contest, I don’t want a personality contest,” Johnson told reporters Thursday. “I want to have us go through this process, and see which leaders emerge out of that process. I come from a manufacturing background: Process is important. You don’t have a good product without a good process, and a bad process would be just a rush to judgment.”

Despite the rush to replace him, McConnell isn’t done yet. “I still have enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics,” McConnell said to close his speech, declining to mention that many of his critics now live in his own party. “And I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm [to] which they’ve become accustomed.”

Worth Your Time

  • Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise is an 887-page behemoth of a policy paper, authored by the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, that outlines a remaking of the executive branch so that, in theory, it can better work for the next conservative administration. Carlos Lozada read the whole thing, and broke it down in the New York Times. “[F]or all the book’s rhetoric about the need to ‘dismantle the administrative state,’ it soon becomes clear that vanquishing the federal bureaucracy is not the document’s animating ambition. There may be plenty worth jettisoning from the executive branch, but ‘Mandate for Leadership’ is about capturing the administrative state, not unmaking it,” he wrote. “Congress’s powers of oversight, for instance, would diminish in various ways. Rather than endure the process of congressional confirmation for people taking on key positions in the executive branch, the new administration should just place those officials in acting roles, which would allow them to begin pursuing the president’s agenda ‘while still honoring the confirmation requirement.’”

Presented Without Comment 

Associated Press: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to Visit Former President Donald Trump at Florida Home Next Week

Also Presented Without Comment

Axios: GOP Rep. Mark Green Reverses Decision to Retire After Trump Pressure

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Mike and Sarah took stock of where former President Donald Trump’s major civil and criminal trials stand.

  • On the podcasts: In a mashup between The Dispatch Podcast and The Collision, Sarah, Mike, and Jonah compare the legal arguments of Trump’s different trials, break down the possible timelines, and consider political ramifications.

  • On the site today: It’s Fiscal Conservatism Day here at The Dispatch. Brian Riedl details the top 10 myths standing in the way of Social Security reform, and Dan Currell explains how President Joe Biden has continued to “cancel” student debt despite the Supreme Court ruling against his most significant effort to do so.

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