If you’ve paid any attention to Mitch McConnell’s comings and goings as Senate Minority Leader, you’re familiar with his tendency to break the fourth wall and lay all the details of his master plans out to the viewing public. He does this a lot. So much, in fact, that his pitch to a Koch Brothers donor summit in June, which was secretly recorded, contains very little that he hasn’t already said publicly in one venue or another.
The one exception, by my read, is his remark about conservatives on the Supreme Court. “I’m really proud of this Supreme Court and the way they’ve been dealing with the issue of First Amendment political speech,” he said. “It’s only five to four, and I pray for the health of the five.”
That comment comes at the 12:45 mark of the video below. It’s difficult to parse his audience’s exact response, but it sounds like laughter distorted by grimacing faces. If it was a joke, it was a pretty bleak joke. The four liberal justices are no less mortal than the five conservatives, as McConell’s critics were quick to observe, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in particular has recently grappled with serious health issues.
There's no denying it was grim and impolitic. But that wasn't the most interesting thing about it. What's really fascinating is the way it differs from his other remarks, which brim with purpose and agency. In the subsequent Q-and-A he promised, as he has in other venues, to use his power over the budget as Majority Leader to force President Obama’s hand on issues like health care, environmental protection and financial services regulation.
But as Majority Leader, he would also enjoy near-complete control over Obama’s Supreme Court nominees. In fact, thanks to the Senate filibuster rules, he enjoys significant control over them already. At least in theory. If the thought of a conservative justice retiring or dying troubles him it’s because he believes Obama would fill the vacancy with a liberal, and flip the Court’s ideological balance. But that would only happen if Senate Republicans allowed it. Thus, the subtext of McConnell's unusually morbid scenario points to one of three conclusions, none of which augur well for the right. It suggests either that he would cave if Obama nominated a liberal to replace a retiring or deceased conservative justice; or that he’d be unable to hold the line; or that holding the line, though possible, would inflict immense, perhaps irreparable, damage on the GOP.
And that should come as a relief to liberals who worry about a Republican Senate take over, or about Ginsburg's reluctance to retire. If beating Obama in a Supreme Court confirmation fight were an easy ask, McConnell would have no reason to pray for the five conservatives justices. Or, rather, he’d have no reason not to pray for all nine in equal measure.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.