I met Ira Shapiro in 1976, when I joined a Senate committee as staff designee for Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson; Ira was working for Nelson at the time, and we became friends. (We still are.) Ira worked in the Senate over decades, crafting the body’s code of ethics and serving as chief of staff to West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller; he moved on to distinguished service as general counsel to America’s trade representative and to law practice, but he never lost his love for the Senate and its people. His first book, The Last Great Senate, reflected on the way the body functioned in its halcyon days, when we both worked there, with norms dedicated to solving national problems even as its structure and rules made it difficult and at times impossible (see, for example, civil rights). A large number of great statesmen—and an occasional stateswoman—elevated the discourse and when necessary rose above partisanship and pettiness.
By Shapiro’s second book, his view of the Senate had changed; the title, Broken, made that clear. It wasn’t that the Senate was bereft of quality individuals who might have been considered giants in a different era—it was the overall political dynamic, including political polarization and the decline of the center, the rise of tribal media and social media, and the willingness especially of Republicans, from their first majority in decades during Reagan’s presidency up to Donald Trump’s first year in the White House, to shred norms that had characterized the Senate of the 1960s and ’70s, making a focus on the essential problems of the nation more and more difficult to resolve. Shapiro also put a spotlight on the role of Mitch McConnell.
If Broken at least had a modestly hopeful side—the wish and belief that somehow the Senate could find its way back to some semblance of its former self—his third book, The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America, has none of that, and the spotlight on McConnell gets brighter and sharper and bleaker. Shapiro defines his thesis this way: “The story of the Senate’s rot is first and foremost the story of Mitch McConnell.” Toward the end, he describes McConnell with some admiration for his considerable skills, but with a damning summation:
McConnell was no “political hack”; he was a superb political strategist and tactician who had never lost an election. He successfully surfed the madness that had engulfed the Republican Party since the rise of Newt Gingrich thirty years earlier to become the most powerful Senate leader in history. More than any other person, he had diminished Obama’s presidency and had helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. With Trump in the White House, McConnell engineered the radical transformation of the Supreme Court and stacked the lower federal courts with right-wing judges; his legacy was secure. Very few people, including presidents, have ever put more of a stamp on our country. What McConnell lacked was a moral compass that would cause him to rise above political calculation.
McConnell’s early years in the Senate did not presage his amoral and ruthless behavior. His role model and mentor, John Sherman Cooper, was a moderate and highly ethical Republican, who would undoubtedly be appalled by the actions of his protégé. The transformation over his Senate career is best described in Alec MacGillis’s superb book The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. But Shapiro takes that portrait and applies it to the McConnell of the past five-plus years. If there is no new reporting here, the cumulative impact of the analysis is damning. In The Betrayal, Shapiro sets out to chronicle key events of the Barack Obama and Trump presidencies, through the beginning of Joe Biden’s term. Much of the book details those key events, starting with the financial collapse that defined the end of George W. Bush’s term and the beginning of Obama’s presidency. House Republicans first rejected the urgent, bipartisan call for an emergency bailout just before the 2008 election and then caved, a plan supported by McConnell. But when Obama became president, McConnell pivoted, with the support of most of his GOP colleagues, into obdurate opposition—even in the face of a dire threat to the U.S. and global economies. As Shapiro puts it, McConnell for the first time was “the opposition leader. He began immediately to transform a Senate struggling unsuccessfully to rise above the polarization of American politics into a bitterly partisan, paralyzed Senate where no effort would be made to overcome the divisions.”
Shapiro guides the reader through the highlights—or lowlights—of the Trump presidency through the prism of the Senate, including the massive tax cuts and attempted repeal of Obamacare, the rush to jam through judges and justices, and, of course, the impeachment. Along the way, a man with no charisma and a visage that reminds many of a turtle was almost Svengali-like in keeping his members in line. The striking element of the tax cuts and the attempted repeal of the health law was the degree to which McConnell threw out the “regular order” to accomplish his ends. Instead of having the bills go through the Senate committees, with hearings, markups, and amendments, he convened a rump group of Republican senators behind closed doors to write the bills, leaving out key members of his own party in addition to shutting out Democrats. But despite sidelining most of them, McConnell did not lose any of his own on the tax cuts, although he did lose the key vote of John McCain on the repeal of Obamacare.
While much of the ground Shapiro treads in the book is familiar, he manages to pull it together in a way that resonates. So much has happened of consequence in the past several years that it is easy to forget each element and how they are tied together. And it is clear that the Senate was pivotal—using and misusing the rules to stymie Obama, including his nominees for executive positions and especially judges; filibustering every initiative big and small; and then protecting and coddling Trump and his corrupt nominees from any significant consequence.
While McConnell’s pledge to make Obama a one-term president failed, the process of disruption and division worked well enough to give the Republicans the Senate majority in the midterms in 2014. That victory meant that McConnell could shatter even more Senate norms when Antonin Scalia died almost a year before the end of Obama’s term. The failure to give even a hearing to Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, was a shocking sign of how the Senate had changed, giving McConnell the ability to fill the post when Trump prevailed in 2016. If Senate Republicans were uneasy about the flagrant breach of norms, they stayed silent—and then voted in lockstep when the long-delayed vacancy was filled by Neil Gorsuch.
Then came the first impeachment, built on the shocking, traitorous behavior of a president who blackmailed the president of Ukraine, in dire need of help in the face of Russian aggression, to get dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The evidence of perfidy was clear, and shown in full relief in the House impeachment hearings, but Senate Republicans made sure the consequences would not fall either on Trump or themselves. The acquittal was foreordained, but the reaction of so-called moderate Republicans in the aftermath was embarrassing. Maine’s Susan Collins famously said, “I believe that the president has learned from this case,” while then Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander said, “Enduring an impeachment is something nobody would like … I would think you would think twice before doing it again.”
McConnell’s Senate was not just a body of “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” when it came to Trump; it was also a body where truth no longer meant anything and hypocrisy was the norm. During the 2016 campaign, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina promised that if an opening occurred in the Supreme Court in Trump’s last year in office, Republicans would wait until after the next election. In 2018, Graham told attendees of the Atlantic Festival, “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process is started, we will wait until the next election. And I’ve got a pretty good chance of being the Judiciary chairman.” Of course, the opening came, with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Graham, along with many other Republicans who had made the same promise, jammed through the confirmation of the radical right-winger Amy Coney Barrett barely a week before the 2020 election. Every Republican save Collins voted to confirm her, one of the most shocking, in-your-face violations of norms in the history of the Senate. We are just beginning to see the dire consequences of this in radical Supreme Court decisions disrupting the fabric of American life.
Shapiro takes us through the debacle of Trump and the pandemic—with no pushback or oversight from Senate Republicans as Trump downplayed the virus, and failed to take any of the steps that could have limited it or prevented massive deaths and incapacitation—and then, of course, the road that led to the January 6 insurrection, the second impeachment of Trump, and his second acquittal. At the impeachment trial in the Senate, McConnell gave a blistering attack on the president, but, predictably, voted for his acquittal. That did not stop Trump from calling McConnell “a dour, sullen, unsmiling political hack.” Trump showed no appreciation for the reality that his presidency, with all its outrages, scandals, traitorous behavior, and widespread corruption, had been saved over and over by McConnell.
Of course, larger trends in society and the political system are largely responsible for the current cancer in the American polity, a cancer that has metastasized from Washington to the states to the public as a whole. The Republican Party was on its way to becoming a radical cult before Donald Trump came along, and before Mitch McConnell became his party’s Senate leader. But individuals can matter in shaping the environment and determining the course of events. And McConnell has mattered—in a way that ensures he will be in the top list of villains when the history of this sorry period is written. The evidence to bolster that judgment will include Ira Shapiro’s The Betrayal.