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OPINION

The nihilism of Mitch McConnell

As the coronavirus kills more Americans than the Vietnam War and the US economy tanks, the Senate majority leader cares about only one thing: political power.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnellChip Somodevilla/Getty

At a time when more Americans have died from the coronavirus than were killed in the Vietnam War, America must overcome a president who is concerned about only himself and a Senate leader focused exclusively on partisan politics.

Last week, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his opposition to sending more money to state and local governments as they are dealing with the fiscal catastrophe of the pandemic. In his view, states should pursue a different option ― bankruptcy.

But McConnell went a step further beyond his heartless proposal. He made clear, in a press release, that his real issue was with “blue state bailouts.”

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“There’s not going to be any desire on the Republican side to bail out state pensions by borrowing money from future generations,” McConnell was quoted telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

The effort to so clearly and ostentatiously turn a national tragedy into yet another partisan issue was met with an immediate and sharp backlash. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York pointed out that states like Kentucky, which McConnell represents, take in far more federal spending than they return in taxes — the opposite of states like New York, which pays more in taxes to the federal government than it receives. But in a plea for decency, Cuomo said, "If there was ever a time for humanity . . . and a time to stop your obsessive political bias and anger, now is the time.”

But we’re talking about Mitch McConnell. This is the man who mobilized his Republican caucus to prevent witnesses from being called in President Trump’s impeachment trial; who rammed through, on a partisan vote, Brett Kavanaugh’s ascendancy to the Supreme Court; and who has shut down the Senate from crucial business except for the confirmation of conservative federal judges. He also strongly resisted efforts to expose Russia’s interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump. I have little doubt he did so because such exposure would have undermined Trump’s White House bid and, in turn, possibly eroded McConnell’s Senate majority.

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And if we want to go further back, this is the same senator who in 2009 and 2010 did exactly what he’s doing now. In the midst of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, he used his 41-seat Senate minority to shoot down virtually every effort to pass stimulus measures that would have lessened the toll, because prolonging the country’s economic pain was in the political interests of the Republican Party.

We’re seeing a variation of such political nihilism now.

There are lots of theories on why McConnell is resisting money for state and local governments now. He’s trying to cripple Democratic state governments by forcing them to cut basic services, goes one argument. Declaring bankruptcy might force states to default on their pension obligations, which would cripple public-sector unions (which strongly support Democratic candidates).

As President Trump hinted at Tuesday, when he said that payments to states would be contingent on the removal of laws creating sanctuary cities, perhaps McConnell is using the desperate fiscal situation as leverage. Indeed, his new-found focus on granting liability protection to businesses that force employees back to work — and his concession earlier this week that state and local funds will “probably” be included in the next stimulus package — suggests that might be what he’s thinking.

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But with McConnell, the best explanation for his behavior usually comes back to politics. As I wrote last year, “For McConnell, politics is fundamentally about accruing political power for the sole purpose of accruing more political power.”

Sure, squeezing Democratic states will boomerang against red states too. Not only will it make the economic downturn worse, which would further undercut Trump’s reelection chances, but it will hurt red-state governors in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Ohio too.

But from McConnell’s perspective, it will have the useful political effect of making the coronavirus pandemic a partisan issue. Already, Republicans have portrayed COVID-19 as a problem that is afflicting blue states more than red ones. “Why should the country suffer because of New York City?” one insidious line of argument goes. Blue state governors in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin are enduring the brunt of partisan attacks for their tough line on strict social distancing rules. Why not up the ante?

The specifics of the bailouts matter less than the opportunity to find political advantage and activate Republican animosity toward liberals. Sure, if you can undercut public sector unions or maybe squeeze out some legal protections for Republican donors, all the better.

It’s a troubling conclusion, but it’s also one that those who look closely at McConnell’s career generally arrive at. As Jane Mayer wrote in a recent profile of McConnell for The New Yorker, “For months, I searched for the larger principles or sense of purpose that animates McConnell. . . . Finally, someone who knows him very well told me, 'Give up. You can look and look for something more in him, but it isn’t there. I wish I could tell you that there is some secret thing that he really believes in, but he doesn’t.’ ”

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Politics has long been the only motivating factor for McConnell: the explanation for everything that he has done over the past several decades to undercut democracy and enable an authoritarian president, dangerously unqualified for the awesome power he wields.

Why should a deadly pandemic and an economic catastrophe be any different?


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.