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Why Mitch McConnell should be the Person of the Decade, and not in a good way

No denying the Twenties decade is approaching, but how will it be described?

From denying a vote on Merrick Garland to rubber stamping President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell symbolizes the decade’s partisanship. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From denying a vote on Merrick Garland to rubber stamping President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell symbolizes the decade’s partisanship. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — According to legend, a Broadway producer opened a show to dreadful reviews on Dec. 30 and then ran banner ads on Jan. 1 bragging, “Second Year in New York.”

Whatever the final reviews of history for impeachment, it is safe to say that both sides can soon boast or lament, “Second Decade in Washington.”

According to the bylaws of the Columnists Guild (not, by the way, a real organization), everyone who opines on a dime is allowed one shot to summarize the passing decade. But what are we to make of a mean and ugly decade defined by its angry tweets?

Unlike the first decade of this millennium (“The Awful Aughts”), there was not a single cataclysmic event like the Twin Towers toppling or the collapse of Lehman Brothers bringing on the Great Recession. Instead, as the rising seas sloshed around our ankles, we careened from one unresolved crisis to another with an ever-dwindling faith in our shared democratic values.

If there was a moment that defined the decade, it was a Capitol Hill meeting in early September 2016 when top Obama administration officials (including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and FBI director James Comey) briefed congressional leaders on the Russian hacking of the election.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, challenged the intelligence findings and refused to sign a joint letter singling out Vladimir Putin. Instead, in late September, the four party leaders in Congress sent a mealy-mouthed letter to the states warning against unnamed “malefactors” who were “seeking to use cyberattacks” to disrupt the elections.

Confronted with an unprecedented foreign attack on our elections (from Wikileaks data dumps to spreading inflammatory misinformation on social media), the Obama administration chose caution over forceful action. As the Washington Post summarized in a 2017 article, “Obama’s approach often seemed reducible to a single imperative: Don’t make things worse.”

In many ways, McConnell is the Person of the Decade when it comes to the destruction of democratic norms. From cynically depriving Merrick Garland of a confirmation vote for a seat on the Supreme Court to turning the Senate into a no-dissent rubber stamp for a Republican president, McConnell symbolizes the vicious partisanship of a dismal decade.

Obama’s dynamic inaction

None of this is designed as an argument for the presidential greatness of Barack Obama, no matter how superior he may have been to his Republican predecessor and successor. Too often, Obama used his forceful intellect as an excuse for dynamic inaction.

America was never all-powerful in the Middle East, but, in hindsight, Obama should have done far more to deter (and maybe oust) Syria’s Bashar Assad in his murderous war on his own people. Instead, Obama kept painting red lines and then allowing Syria to defiantly stomp on them.

Maybe nothing could have halted the Syrian refugee crisis that enflamed xenophobic passions in Europe and undermined democracy in former Soviet bloc nations like Hungary and Poland. But it is weird that these days liberals look at the world stage with despair before declaring, “Thank God, for Germany and Angela Merkel.”

It is with careful restraint that I have written more than half a column on the decade without mentioning Donald Trump. But, in a sense, Trump’s reign of error has only been made possible by the cowardice of the Republican Party.

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Other than lowering taxes for the super-wealthy and gutting government regulation, every principle that once defined the GOP has been repudiated by Trump and his congressional enablers. A belief in the Constitution, separation of powers, balanced budgets, skepticism about Moscow, hatred of North Korea, free trade and the value of decorum and civility: All were thrown overboard to satisfy Trump’s ego needs and unbridled id.

Silent obedience to Trump

For the last three years, I have been baffled about why Republicans on Capitol Hill have been so eager to bow and scrape before Trump. Is fear of being challenged in a primary or being the target of vicious tweets so powerful that it creates a silence that Mafia bosses might envy?

My new theory — and I pray I’m wrong — is that Republicans have come to believe that Trump represents not only the hateful present but also the ugly future. That Trump is not an aberration, but a prophet of the depths to which American democracy has permanently descended.

This is also a debate that is shaping the Democratic primaries.

Candidates like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser degree, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, seem to believe that bold action to transform the economy and the health care system is the proper response to four years of Trump. In contrast, moderates like former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar insist that with persuasive leadership in the White House, it is possible to bridge partisan enmities.

Grass instead of gin

On the morning of Jan. 1, we will, for the first time in 20 years, begin a decade that has a universally accepted name: The Twenties.

Instead of bathtub gin, we are moving toward the legalization of marijuana in all 50 states. Instead of the excitement of being brought together by radio as the first instantaneous mass media, we are being ripped apart by cable TV and social media.

Optimists may end up calling the coming decade the Soaring Twenties. And traditionalists might opt for the second coming of the Roaring Twenties.

But after the trauma and the torment of the first 20 years of this century, after the Trumpification of public discourse and truth itself, I am eagerly rooting for a soothing decade of restoration that may someday be known as the Boring Twenties.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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