Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
It was, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo observed, “one of the really dumb ideas of all time”. Larry Hogan, his counterpart in Maryland, called it “complete nonsense”. Congressman Pete King of New York said it was the work of the “Marie Antoinette of the Senate”.
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It would be an understatement to say Mitch McConnell’s suggestion that state and local governments should declare bankruptcy rather than seek more federal funding went down like a lead balloon. It was a rare instance of the Senate majority leader overplaying his hand.
It also showed that Donald Trump is not the only figure embodying liberal nightmares in the time of coronavirus. When historians contemplate a death toll in the tens of thousands and an economy fallen off a cliff, they will pay close attention to the president’s most important ally.
“I think Mitch McConnell is the guy to be watching and focusing on in terms of what’s going on,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “His messaging around the coronavirus has been tone deaf.
“It’s not just the fact that McConnell was remarkably brutal in pairing Americans into red and blue states at a time of national crisis – that is pretty shameless – but I think it was also politically inept because he’s got his colleagues in tough races in blue states.”
McConnell’s role in the pandemic drama has been criticised. On 12 March, just before Trump declared a national emergency, the senator flew back to Kentucky for a celebration for Justin Walker, a young rightwing judge nominated to America’s second highest court. The ill-timed absence was noted. “#WheresMitch?” trended on Twitter.
With the economy in a tailspin, Senate Republicans came up with emergency funding. But it was skewed in favour of corporate executives and shareholders. Democrats refused it. A New York Times editorial was headlined: “The Coronavirus Bailout Stalled. And It’s Mitch McConnell’s Fault.”
Democrats forced concessions in a record $2.2tn bill that increased support to workers and reduced handouts to business, though these still amounted to what critics called a $500bn “corporate slush fund”.
Trump was earning global opprobrium for his bungling of the pandemic, but it was apparently too late for McConnell to untether himself from the president, even if he so desired. Instead, he blamed Democrats for impeaching Trump.
“[The coronavirus] came up while we were tied down in the impeachment trial,” McConnell told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “And I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything every day was all about impeachment.”
Opponents saw that as a feeble attempt to excuse the inexcusable.
Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Joe Biden, said: “Almost any good Mitch McConnell did by cooperating and collaborating on the legislative side is undone by his enabling of the president at a time when he could have been a real leader and called out the president on his lack of responsiveness and leadership.
“It’s disappointing because he had the chance to redeem himself from all the negative and enabling and divisiveness of the past several years as the majority leader and he didn’t take it.
Vela, a board director of TransparentBusiness, added: “Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are battling for who is the greatest hypocrite in our nation – it’s like they’re competing for the hypocrisy trophy. It’s not about unity, it’s not about bringing the American people together at a time of crisis. For McConnell and Trump, it’s all about politics and power.”
Last week McConnell retreated from his much-derided position on “blue state bailouts” and bankruptcy, indicating he would consider funds in the next relief bill for state and local governments struggling to pay police and firefighters.
“There’s no question all governors, regardless of party, would like to have more money, I’m open to discussing that,” he said on Fox News Radio.
But he sailed into fresh controversy by insisting that senators, unlike their counterparts in the House, return to work on Monday. Washington DC remains a virus hotspot. At least one senator, eight Capitol police officers and 11 workers have tested positive. Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland warned that “without effective safeguards in place, Mitch McConnell is endangering the lives of the staff”.
Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, condemned McConnell for priorities that include confirming Walker and demanded oversight hearings into the White House’s “dreadful response to this public health crisis”.
Schumer said: “The American people are demanding answers and solutions – Senator McConnell ought to focus the Senate’s work on the crises caused by Covid-19, not rightwing judges or fulfilling his ‘pre-existing partisan wishlist’ of protecting big business from any harm done to the American people.”
Another confrontation is looming, over the next stimulus package. McConnell is insisting on protections for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits as states reopen. Democrats warn workers’ health could be jeopardised.
Public Citizen, a corporate and government watchdog, tweeted: “McConnell is now refusing to pass ANY stimulus bill that doesn’t include TOTAL LEGAL IMMUNITY for corporations that get people sick [with] the coronavirus. It’s abhorrent. It’s also totally impractical. How can we reopen the economy if companies have no incentive to keep us safe?”
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Trump and McConnell appear bound together. Should the president lose in November, he could bring down Senate Republicans – perhaps even McConnell in Kentucky. Challenger Amy McGrath, a fighter pilot, outraised McConnell in the first three months of this year.
Defeat would be an ignominious end to a divisive career. Kurt Bardella, a former senior adviser for the House oversight committee, said: “History will not look back on Mitch McConnell kindly. He has been the most effective enabler of Donald Trump.
“Everything Trump has inflicted on the American people has been done with the blessing of McConnell. Through this entire coronavirus pandemic, McConnell has displayed he is a soulless person who is willing to let people suffer so he can continue to wield power.”