Mitch McConnell’s record-breaking tenure worth a spot in history books
By: Scott Jennings
Phil Niekro confounded the best hitters in baseball for 24 Major League seasons using a knuckleball that Yankee outfielder Bobby Murcer said was “like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.” Only three hurlers pitched more innings than the durable Niekro, and just nine players appeared in more seasons.
After a long day on the Senate floor, Kentucky’s political version of Niekro — Mitch McConnell — unwinds by catching the last few innings of his beloved Washington Nationals. McConnell, who on June 12 became the longest-serving Republican Senate leader in American history, knows that experience, patience and strategy make a difference in both baseball and politics, two great American past times he has loved since childhood.
A fan favorite, Niekro’s style fueled his longevity and made him one of the winningest pitchers in history. Similarly, McConnell brings Republicans a certain joy when he stymies Democrats with his frustratingly dispassionate style. Heckling liberal bleacher bums, ever enraged by McConnell’s wry grin, never bother the wily veteran.
“I have grudging respect for his success,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who watches McConnell throw unhittable procedural pitches on the Senate floor.
McConnell is a throwback, a veteran workhorse laboring in an era of show ponies who flame out before accomplishing much of anything. While some senators throw hard for the cameras, they care not whether their pitches are strategically placed. That’s not McConnell, who wins more than he loses by making Democrats flail as Chuck Schumer did during January’s government shutdown.
When McConnell became Republican leader, the Tea Party hadn’t materialized, Donald Trump was a registered Democrat, and populism wasn’t exactly a household word. While much has changed about our politics and culture in the last 11 years, McConnell is the same pitcher he always was: a fierce competitor whose only mission is to win.
Taking over as minority leader in the wake of what President George W. Bush called “a thumpin’ ” in the 2006 midterm, McConnell stifled much of President Barack Obama’s agenda, galvanizing his team against the American left’s worst ideas while paving the way for 2016’s rightward swing. McConnell will long be remembered for holding open the Supreme Court Seat of Antonin Scalia, who died during Obama’s waning days in office.
McConnell describes the last year and a half of unified Republican control under President Trump as “the most productive period for center-right governance” since he went to Washington in 1985. And McConnell is the man most responsible for enacting the president’s agenda – tax cuts, regulatory relief, drilling in ANWR, and increased military spending, etc.
As McConnell’s late colleague Jim Bunning knew, even Hall of Famers sometime have tough starts. McConnell kept his team in the Obamacare repeal and replace game last summer but ultimately came up one vote short, when John McCain blew the save. You can’t win ’em all, although McConnell split the series by eventually eliminating Obamacare’s individual mandate in the tax reform law.
But there’s no doubt the GOP has much to show for making McConnell the ace of their Senate rotation. They filled the Scalia seat with conservative Neil Gorsuch, along with a record number of circuit court vacancies that McConnell created during the Obama years. We’ll be talking about McConnell’s raft of young judges three decades from now the way baseball people still talk about Niekro’s fluttering knuckler, last thrown in 1987.
Kentucky — which would ordinarily lack the influence of places like California, New York and Texas — punches above its federal weight because of McConnell’s leadership position. When Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont stuck it to tiny Berea College using procedural trickery in December’s tax reform bill, McConnell righted the wrong by striking out Sanders’ provision in February’s budget deal.
In 2017, as 22,000 retired coal miners faced the elimination of their health benefits, McConnell was the stopper they needed. “This is a tremendous victory, and Sen. McConnell played a decisive role in making sure it happened,” said union boss Steve Earle, who has spent much of his adult life trying to chase McConnell from the Senate. (Interestingly, Niekro’s father learned the knuckleball from a coal miner and passed it on to his sons Phil and Joe, also a successful Major Leaguer, in the backyard.)
McConnell keeps hitters guessing by throwing occasional curveballs. For instance, he has become a surprising champion for legalizing industrial hemp after a career spent fighting drug abuse. McConnell once said “put me down in favor of boring” when it comes to politics, but his hemp hop is anything but.
The legendary Pete Rose said hitting against Niekro was “a miserable way to make a living.” One imagines that Schumer and Harry Reid, the two Democrats who faced McConnell’s pitching on a regular basis, feel the same way about the cunning righthander from Louisville.
You can find Niekro’s plaque in Cooperstown, alongside legends like Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan and Cy Young. Now, in a virtual Senate Hall of Fame where the legacies of Mike Mansfield, Lyndon Johnson, Howard Baker, Alben Barkley and Bob Dole are forever remembered, you’ll find one more name etched in the history books: Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell.
Scott Jennings is a CNN Contributor and Partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ScottJenningsKY on Twitter.