Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell backed down Thursday from yet another reckless and embarrassing game of brinksmanship over lifting the debt ceiling. In so doing, he lost face with his own caucus, earned another round of rebukes from Donald Trump, and called into further question his unearned reputation as an effective partisan leader.

By way of brief introduction: The requirement to raise the debt ceiling is a stupid artifact of a stupid gold standard–era rule that says Congress must approve the Treasury printing money that Congress has already approved of spending. Failure to raise it would be the equivalent of running up debt on the national credit card but not actually paying it off. The consequences would devastate both U.S. and global economies. In today’s Washington, it inevitably gives groups of legislators a chance to hold the government hostage to its demands. Quite simply, the need for Congress to raise the debt ceiling is a remnant of a bygone era—and it should be abolished.

McConnell, who is never one to waste a moment of opportunism, decided to go ahead and take the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, and try to put more fearful Democrats into a bind. As Jim Newell explains at Slate:

Democrats have agreed to put up the votes themselves, but that’s not good enough for McConnell. Instead, he has insisted they do it through the filibuster-free reconciliation process, instead of through normal procedures. Republicans want that for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a tedious, convoluted process that would eat up a lot of time and allow for Republicans to throw up difficult messaging votes, just as Democrats are trying to focus on passing their Build Back Better agenda. The other reason is that doing it through reconciliation, for dumb (dumb!!) parliamentary reasons, would force Democrats to raise the debt limit to a specific number, rather than suspend the limit until a certain date.

Not all Democrats, but some, are terrified of raising the debt limit to a very scary number without any political cover from GOP members. Republicans are being ridiculous in trying to force Democrats to do something they all agree must be done through a convoluted process so they can get Democrats to own “the number.” But they’re only getting away with it because some Democrats are being ridiculous in caring about this.

But McConnell overplayed his hand and was forced to retreat. Even centrist Democrats and many Republican senators were so incensed by this audacious scheme that it fell apart. Several GOP senators were reportedly set to defect and try to break the filibuster, fearful that a government shutdown precipitated by Republicans might damage the party’s image. More importantly, even moderate Senate Democrats were considering a single-time carve-out from the filibuster to overcome the threat. This would be McConnell’s worst nightmare: If the filibuster dam could break to resolve the debt ceiling, why not voting rights and other priorities? As Politico reports,

McConnell backed down after Democratic threats of nuking the filibuster for the debt ceiling started to become more real. At their Tuesday lunch, Democratic senators discussed how McConnell’s blockade on the debt ceiling was boosting the case of filibuster reformers. Later that day, Biden, generally a skeptic of filibuster reform, said such a change for the debt ceiling was now a “real possibility.”

Democratic supporters of filibuster reform have taken note of how the issue seems to have moved McConnell. “The filibuster is McConnell’s instrument of obstruction,” one Democratic senator told Playbook. “He wants to protect that at all costs. He was at real risk of overplaying his hand as he faced the growing prospect that we would have 51 votes to waive it for the purpose of dealing with debt. He wanted to avoid creating that precedent. Still, would have been better for us to just do it.”

This is a major black eye for McConnell. Much as The New York Times and other major media outlets have been attempting to sanitize his incompetent malevolence as a gentlemanly act of compromise, it’s clear that he overstepped and harmed his position. Trump is using it as an excuse to go on the attack, and Democratic opponents of the filibuster have never yet been so emboldened.

McConnell likes to think of himself as one of the most consequential and effective majority leaders in American history. But it’s just not true. This is the same person who confidently brought a vote on eliminating the Affordable Care Act to the floor, only to watch in agony as an ailing John McCain voted it down.

Much like Trump, McConnell’s superpower isn’t his cunning intellect, but his relentless shamelessness. Like a raptor at the fence in Jurassic Park, he pokes and prods at the holes in the teetering American system of democracy, destabilizing it and playing brinksmanship wherever he can with no thought for the morrow, and no fear of abject hypocrisy.

He knows that preventing a Democrat from ever appointing a Supreme Court justice, purportedly out of concern for an election year, and then filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat with an arch-right ideologue just days before a presidential election, undermines the Supreme Court’s legitimacy. He doesn’t care. He knows that holding his entire caucus firm on not solving a single problem makes real bipartisanship impossible. He doesn’t care. He knows that threatening to blow up the global economy and default on U.S. treasuries to make a few moderate Democrats sweat ratchets up the likelihood of chaos in the Senate. He doesn’t care. If it leads in the short term to more tax cuts for the obscenely wealthy and more Federalist Society judges, McConnell will do it—no matter the long-term price.

His strategy could wind up being successful. He could weaken the structural supports of democracy, increase inequality, and plant enough Republican judges to turn America into a permanent right-wing kleptocracy. But only if the press doesn’t hold him accountable and moderate Democrats don’t stiffen their spines to make him and his allies pay a price.

But as this latest debt ceiling debacle shows, if McConnell does succeed in his plans, it won’t be out of brilliance. It will be out of brutal shamelessness—and a lack of effective opposition.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.