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What is Mitch McConnell's legacy?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell announced yesterday that he will step down as minority leader after this November's election. He still intends to serve out his term through 2026. McConnell is the longest-serving Senate leader in history. And as NPR political correspondent, Susan Davis, reports, he will leave behind a legacy poised to reshape the courts in favor of conservatives for the next generation.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: The most consequential thing Mitch McConnell did in his nearly 40-year career occurred during President Obama's second term. Just ask him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: The most important decision I've made in my entire political career was not to fill the Supreme Court vacancy when Justice Scalia passed away.

DAVIS: When Antonin Scalia died in February of 2016, McConnell, at the height of his power, quickly unified all Senate Republicans behind his strategy to block Obama appointee Merrick Garland and keep that Supreme Court seat vacant until after the 2016 presidential election. At the time, Obama issued an ominous warning about the impact of McConnell's power move.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: If confidence in the courts consistently breaks down, then you start seeing our attitudes about democracy generally starting to break down and legitimacy breaking down in ways that are very dangerous.

DAVIS: Like most Washington leaders, McConnell thought Hillary Clinton would win that presidential race. Donald Trump credited McConnell's Supreme Court blockade for motivating white evangelical voters to help deliver Trump's surprise victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: It really did have an impact on the election, if you think about it, because people knew me very well. But they didn't know - was he liberal, conservative? Who are the judges? And I'd hear so much about, but who are your judges?

DAVIS: Together over the next four years, the Trump White House and the McConnell-led Senate orchestrated a decadeslong conservative goal by filling over 200 lower court positions and, most notably, three Supreme Court justices.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MCCONNELL: The president made an outstanding choice with Neil Gorsuch.

Judge Kavanaugh possesses an impressive resume.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is a stellar nominee.

DAVIS: Trump was the backseat passenger to what was ultimately McConnell's driving strategy to shift the balance of the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary to the right for, likely, the next generation. The court vacancies acutely highlighted McConnell's ability to justify any strategy to achieve his desired outcome. Garland couldn't be confirmed because the vacancy had occurred within eight months of a presidential election, McConnell reasoned at the time. But when asked if faced with a similar vacancy prior to the 2020 election, he was clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: We'd fill it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: And that is exactly what he did when liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died eight weeks before the 2020 election. And he cleared the way for Coney Barrett's confirmation just five weeks later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: What can't be undone is a lifetime appointment to a young man or woman who believes in the quaint notion that the job of judge is to follow the law. So that's the most important thing we've done for the country, which cannot be undone.

DAVIS: Judicial victory has not come without political backlash for Republicans. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, handing the power to decide abortion laws back to the states, McConnell wrongly predicted to NPR that it would have little political impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MCCONNELL: My guess is, in terms of the impact on federal races, I think it's probably going to be a wash.

DAVIS: To his political opponents, McConnell is seen as this power-hungry partisan who only gave lip service to his respect for Democratic institutions. His former Senate counterpart, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, said this of McConnell at the 2016 Democratic convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY REID: And I have never seen anything more craven than Mitch McConnell and what he's done to our democracy.

DAVIS: And the view from current counterpart, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a 2020 floor speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Leader McConnell has defiled the Senate like no one in this generation.

DAVIS: But McConnell has always seen himself as a principled institutionalist. In his Wednesday announcement on the Senate floor, he choked up talking about his reverence for the body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCONNELL: I love the Senate. It has been my life. There may be more distinguished members of this body throughout our history, but I doubt there were any with any more admiration for the Senate.

DAVIS: Today, the Supreme Court faces historically low approval ratings, according to Gallup. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of the way the court is handling its work. Likewise, McConnell exits leadership as one of the most unpopular politicians in America. But McConnell never really cared about being popular as much as he did winning the fight.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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