Make the Senate Great Again — Editorial, American Heritage

Why can’t the U.S. Senate be more like it was in the 1960s, when members of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” put the interests of the country first?

Editor’s Notes: The author of this editorial, Ira Shapiro, is a former Senate staffer who has written three books about the Senate: The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis (2012); Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country? (2018); and The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America (2022). This essay includes some text included in Mr. Shapiro’s books, with the permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers’ Inc. Mr. Shapiro’s speeches and articles about the Senate can be found on his website,

In the American constitutional system, no one person should be able to undermine our institutions and jeopardize our democracy. The framers of the Constitution wanted a strong central government because the weakness of the Articles of Confederation had revealed the limits of what the states could accomplish on their own. But, having fought the American Revolution to free the colonies from Great Britain and its monarch, our founders feared the possibility of an overreaching executive who would seek to become a king or an autocrat. They also feared a president who might be corrupt, pursuing personal gain instead of the national interest, and that he could be susceptible to powerful foreign influences.

Consequently, the founders designed a system of checks and balances, the most distinctive feature of which was the Senate. They made it the strongest upper house in the world, with the power to “advise and consent” on executive and judicial nominations, to ratify treaties, and to hold impeachment trials.

Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving senator and its most dedicated historian, who understood the Senate’s potential and hated when it failed to reach that mark, wrote that “the American Senate was the premier spark of brilliance that emerged from the collective intellect of the Constitution’s framers.”

James Madison, characteristically, cut to the heart of things in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1787. He called the Senate “the great anchor of the government…Such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”

The Senate would be assigned many functions, but it had one fundamental, overriding responsibility: to be a bulwark against any leader who would abuse the powers of the presidency in ways that threatened our democracy. Some 230 years later, when just such a president finally reached the White House, the Senate should have been democracy’s strongest line of defense.

Instead, a nightmare scenario played out: the Senate, weakened from a long period of accelerating decline, riven by hyper-partisanship, and led by a paper-thin Republican majority, proved incapable of checking Trump’s authoritarian desires. Sometimes, the Senate aided and abetted Trump; other times, it simply stood by and allowed him to rampage unchecked. Any fair historical assessment will blame the Senate for its dereliction of duty – a failure to prevent President Trump’s assault on our democracy as he worked to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after losing the 2020 election to Joe Biden.

It is impossible to understand the decay of our politics and the breakdown of our government, even before Trump’s presidency, without recognizing that the Senate was ground zero for America’s political dysfunction; it is the political institution that failed the country the longest and the worst. The Senate’s failure was particularly crippling because it was supposed to be not only a check on a rogue president, but the balance wheel and moderating force in our political system – the place where the two parties come together to find common ground through vigorous debate and principled compromise to advance the national interest.

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Mitch McConnell, You’re No Mike Mansfield — TNR

The Kentucky Republican just passed the Montana Democrat as the longest-serving Senate leader. Unfortunately, he’s dismantled everything Mansfield worked to build.

As the 118th Congress convened, public attention understandably focused on the spectacle in the House of Representatives, as Kevin McCarthystruggled through four days and 15 rounds of voting before winning the votes to succeed Nancy Pelosi, the iconic Democratic speaker. But across the Capitol, Mitch McConnell quietly celebrated a historic accomplishment: becoming the longest-serving Senate leader in history, surpassing the record of 16 years held by Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana. Mansfield will never match the fame of his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert A. Caro’s “master of the Senate.” But McConnell, a keen student of Senate history, called Mansfield the Senate leader he most admired, “for restoring the Senate to a place of greater cooperation and freedom.”

Unfortunately, McConnell has ignored every lesson from Mansfield’s leadership. Mike Mansfield took the helm of a struggling Senate trying to overcome the reactionary power of the Southern bloc and led it to its greatest period of accomplishment ever in the 1960s and 1970s. Mitch McConnell took a struggling Senate trying to overcome the centrifugal forces of our increasingly divided politics and drove it into an accelerating downward spiral, culminating in 2020 and early 2021 in the Senate’s most catastrophic failure, when it failed to convict Donald J. Trump in his second impeachment trial even after he incited the January 6 insurrection. In every respect, McConnell has been the anti-Mansfield.

Mansfield, born in 1900, a professor of Asian history and a World War I veteran who served in all three branches of the military, was an unlikely politician: laconic, intellectual, and averse to self-promotion. He didn’t seek to be a Senate leader, accepting the job very reluctantly at the request of his close friend, President-elect John F. Kennedy. He failed to inspire confidence initially, to the point that he offered the Senate his resignation near the end of his third year if it was unsatisfied with his light-touch approach to leadership. “It is unlikely that [Mansfield] twisted one arm in his sixteen years in charge,” Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, Senate leaders between 1996 and 2004, would later write in admiration and amazement. Yet after the assassination of President Kennedy, Mansfield built a Senate based on trust and mutual respect, enabling the body to meet the challenges of a turbulent period in a bipartisan way.

Universally admired for his wisdom, honesty, and fairness, Mansfield worked with President Johnson and the Senate led by Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen to break the Southern filibuster to pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Drawing on his deep knowledge of Asia, Mansfield presciently warned Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon that the U.S. engagement in Vietnam was disastrous. Under his leadership, the Senate became the forum for challenging, and ultimately ending, the war.

In October 1972, when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the abuses of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, Mansfield immediately promised a full and fair Senate investigation. When the Senate convened in January 1973, it unanimously voted to create a select committee to investigate the abuses, by then known as “Watergate,” even though Nixon had won reelection in a 49-state landslide. The bombshell revelations of the committee’s memorable hearings in the summer of 1973, led by Democrat Sam Ervin and Republican Howard Baker, paved the way inexorably to Nixon’s resignation a year later.

In contrast, McConnell has been far and away the most partisan Senate leader in the modern era. Passing up virtually every opportunity to turn down the heat and bring people together in a bitterly divided nation, McConnell labeled his opponents “thugs” and “the mob”; blasted “blue state bailouts” during the pandemic; silenced Elizabeth Warren with an unprecedented misuse of the Senate rules; accused Democrats of “treating religious Americans like strange animals in a menagerie”; admitted openly that “the single most important thing” he and Republicans could do was to make Barack Obama a one-term president; and opposed the nomination of Judge Ketanji Jackson to the Supreme Court, calling her “the favored choice of left-wing, dark money groups.”

Early in his Senate career, McConnell set his sights on being the leader; with great patience and political skill, he achieved that after 22 years in the Senate. Yet despite his supposed love of the institution, McConnell has routinely trashed the customs and norms essential for the Senate to serve as what Walter Mondale called “the nation’s mediator.” There is no precedent for McConnell’s relentless efforts in 2017 to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement—and without hearings, committee markup, consultation with affected interests, or any trace of bipartisanship. Nor was there any precedent for his refusal to give Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, a confirmation hearing for nine months before the 2016 election.

In stark contrast to Mansfield, McConnell failed America in crisis times. He did not use his power to stop Donald Trump’s assault on our democracy. He was AWOL when Trump’s unhinged leadership during the pandemic caused hundreds of thousands of Americans to die needlessly. He did not counter Trump’s claims that the presidential election was stolen for five long weeks after the Associated Press and networks called the election for Biden, allowing the “Big Lie” to spread like wildfire and to be embraced by 50 million Americans. McConnell could not bring himself to vote to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, even after the January 6 insurrection, despite his powerful denunciation of the former president.

Interestingly, McConnell has forged an impressive record in the past year: steadfastly supporting President Biden’s strong position on sending arms to Ukraine, breaking with the NRA and the gun manufacturers to support the first gun safety legislation since 1994, and joining with Democrats and Republicans to pass the Electoral Count Act and fund the government through September 30, 2023. Politicians operate at the intersection of conviction, calculation, and conscience, and perhaps in McConnell’s case, some degree of regret and guilt. As long as he still holds power, McConnell can airbrush his record by doing some good for America.

Ultimately, however, McConnell’s page in the history books is likely to focus less on his failure to stop Trump and more on how an iron-willed leader orchestrated a corrupted confirmation process for four years to produce a radical, lawless Supreme Court. When the Republican Senate finished the job in October 2020 by ramming through the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg eight days before Election Day, McConnell congratulated himself on “the single most important accomplishment of my career.… A lot of what we have done in the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. They won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”

By “they,” McConnell meant future presidents, Congresses, and American voters—an appalling statement for a political leader in a democracy. McConnell’s legacy is assured; now 80, he will be recalled every time his illegitimate, extremist court diminishes the constitutional rights of Americans or usurps the authority of other branches of government.

Can the Senate’s comeback continue in an acrimonious 118th Congress? — The Hill


As the House Republicans made extraordinary history battling each other in an acrimonious and chaotic effort to pick the next Speaker, the Senate quietly convened, swore in seven new members, and generally seemed to enjoy being the “adults in the room,” far from the turmoil on other side of the Capitol.

But the stark contrast masked a more complex reality, reflected by several senators, retiring after long careers, who expressed fears about the future of the Senate.

As reported by Emily Cochrane in the New York Times, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) “ticked through his frustrations that had piled up in recent year: party leaders devaluing committee work, an institution reluctant to embrace new ideas, and unnamed colleagues unwilling to collaborate or brush up on the details of legislating.” 


Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) decried the centralization of power in the leaders; “we have an incredible amount of wasted talent,” he stated in his farewell speech. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving senator, grimly observed: “If we don’t start working together more, if we don’t know and respect each other, the world’s greatest deliberative body will sink slowly into irrelevance.”

Without in any way questioning the depth of these concerns, it is important to recognize that the decline of Congress — particularly the Senate — is the longest-playing story in American politics, matched only by the endless movement of the Republican Party, starting with the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), from conservatism to MAGA radicalism and nihilism.

Congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann analyzed the decline of Congress in their classic, “The Broken Branch” in 2006. Ten years earlier, in 1996, the Senate experienced a record number of retirements — 14 — by some of the most respected legislative deal makers of their time, including Democrats Sam Nunn (Ga.), Bill Bradley (N.J.), Howell Heflin (Ala.) and David Pryor (Ark.) and Republicans Alan Simpson (Wyo.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.) and William Cohen (Maine).

The common thread that ran through many of their farewell speeches was a deep dismay about the condition and direction of American politics.

James Exon, who served 25 years as Nebraska’s senator and governor, put it forcefully in terms that the other departing senators could relate to:

“Our political process must be ‘re-civilized. … The ever-increasing vicious polarization of the electorate, the us-against-them mentality, has all but swept aside the former preponderance of reasonable discussion of the pros and cons of many legitimate issues. Unfortunately, the traditional art of workable compromise for the ultimate good of the nation, the essence of democracy, is demonstrated eroded.”

Those speeches came more than a quarter of a century ago, in a period of peace and prosperity. From that point, the Senate spiraled downward, hitting rock bottom with its catastrophic failure to protect Americans and our democracy from Donald Trump in the crisis year of 2020 and in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

In contrast, as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne observed, “the congressional session that just ended was remarkably productive. Major investments in infrastructure, clean energy and technology showed that our government has the capacity to think ahead, not just react to political pressures and short-term problems.”

Moreover, the Senate was able to come together on a bipartisan basis to enact the first gun safety legislation since 1994, safeguard marriage equality, revise the flawed electoral count system and fund the government through Sept. 30. Repeatedly, a significant group of Senate Republicans — ranging from 12 to 19 — joined the Democrats, led by President Biden, Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in making these legislative accomplishments possible. This impressive record compels several conclusions.

First, while we can respect the dedication and service of retiring senators like Burr, Blunt, Leahy, Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), their experience didn’t save the Senate from decline and failure. Legislating requires skill and some experience; it does not require 30 or 40 years on the Hill. Over the years, countless senators from both parties, such as Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) had a powerful impact within a short time after arriving.  

What I’m reading Six books now on my nightstand — Robert Reich

Several of you have asked for my summer reading recommendations. I know this is a bit late, (whatever happened to June and July?), but all of these are worth the wait (and the weight — these aren’t exactly light books).


Dirt Road Revival, by Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward. This is the most thoughtful and uplifting book I’ve read in a long time. It’s written by two young political organizers in Maine (one of whom is now a major force in the state legislature) about how grassroots progressives can regain the trust of America’s Trumpers. Riveting and important.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It’s a moving and trenchant novel whose major character, it turns out, is our planet.

Dignity in a Digital Age, by Ro Khanna. The progressive and talented congressman from Silicon Valley provides a convincing blueprint for a society in which prosperity is widely shared.

Only the Rich Can Play, by David Wessel. Wessel knows Washington as well if not better than anyone reporting on it, and in this books provides a clear-eyed look at how wealth and power have distorted and corrupted our nation’s capital.

The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, by Lily Geismer. An important object lesson in how means became confused with ends when Democrats tried to gain and hold power by giving the oligarchy what it wanted. I have lived much of what she reports.

The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America, by Ira Shapiro. McConnell comes off even worse than you know in this trenchant and disturbing account of the man who brought us the most reactionary Supreme Court in ninety years.

Going Big, by Robert Kuttner. An important argument about how progressives and Democrats could do far better politically if they were more ambitious.

The Ministry of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. A taut and powerfully-written novel about what the future may hold.


What are your best summer reads so far?

Saving American Democracy: Focus on the Senate Elections, Corporate Leaders Need to Include Impact on Democracy in Company Political Spending Decisions

Guest Column
Saving American Democracy: Focus on the Senate Elections, Corporate Leaders Need to Include Impact on Democracy in Company Political Spending Decisions
By Ira Shapiro

There was a time, in early 2021, to believe that our nation coming out of Covid, having elected Joe Biden president, and responding to the shocking January 6 attack on the Capitol, could begin to heal its divisions. Of course, that hopeful moment was fleeting. America is by all measures even more bitterly divided than at any time since the Civil War. That was true even before the shattering Supreme Court decision to overrule Roe v. Wade, eliminating, for the first time in history, a constitutional right on which millions of Americans relied, fundamental to women’s equality and freedom. Now, buoyed by their victory, opponents of abortion push for further restrictions and outright bans in states across the country. On the other side, abortion rights advocates will “harness rage over the decision to take to the streets, fight back in the courts, and push the Biden administration to do more to protect abortion rights,” reported Kate Zernike in the New York Times.

Amidst this frenetic activity, Democrats should not lose sight of the one thing that can most dramatically change our politics in the short term: winning Senate elections. Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans gave America this radical Supreme Court through a corrupted confirmation process that blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Court in 2016; abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court justices in 2017; confirmed Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 even after the National Council of Churches opposed his nomination; and rammed through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett eight days before election day in 2020 after fifty million people had already voted. Of course, McConnell and his Republican caucus also stayed silent while Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen poisoned the nation and triggered the attack on the Capitol, and then refused to convict Trump even after he was impeached for inciting the January 6 insurrection.

Off year elections are notoriously difficult for the party in power; with inflation surging and Biden’s approval rating tanking, the political environment has rightly been described as “brutal” for the Democrats. But the Senate map is favorable: the Republicans are defending twenty seats, the Democrats only fourteen; five Republicans retirements have produced open seat opportunities for Democrats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina, where strong Democratic candidates will be running against extreme Republican nominees. Several Republican incumbents—Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio, and Chuck Grassley—are potentially beatable. Democrats need to channel their despair and anger into focused political action. A Senate with 54-56 Democrats, instead of 50, would make it possible to change the filibuster rules, continue confirming progressive judges, and put major pieces of the Democratic agenda before the country in advance of the 2024 presidential election.

Seeking to regain the Republican Senate majority, McConnell has supported the infrastructure legislation, aid to Ukraine, and most recently, the bipartisan legislation which represents the first modest Congressional action to reduce gun violence. Democrats and independents should not be deluded by his effort to avoid the Senate Republicans being tagged as complete obstructionists. It is time to hold McConnell and the Senate Republicans accountable: for the radical Supreme Court they have given us; for their failure to protect America from Trump’s assault on our democracy and his unhinged leadership during the pandemic; and for constantly blocking action to address our most urgent problems. We have been living, and dying, in McConnell’s America far too long; the November elections are our chance to end his destructive reign.

With our democracy hanging by a fraying thread, each of us needs to assess whether he/she has done enough to preserve it. The corporate community bears particular responsibility; with a few notable exceptions, business leaders have continually underestimated how dire the threat to democracy is or found justifications to continue their usual pattern of political contributions. This can no longer be the case. Corporate leaders need to include the interest of their stakeholders and their company and the type of environment — a vibrant democracy — that benefits both as they weigh how to approach political spending.

Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and Clinton administration trade ambassador, is the author of three books about the Senate, most recently The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America. He can be followed on Twitter @shapiroglobal. His website is

CPA is a non-profit, non-partisan organization created in November 2003 to bring transparency and accountability to political spending. To learn more about the Center for Political Accountability visit

An eighth term for Sen. Chuck Grassley?

With the Senate primary elections over, Iowans face the decision between Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democrat Admiral Mike Franken. There will be time between now and November for Admiral Franken to try to convince Iowans that his record of military service would make him a valuable addition to the Senate. But even before that, the basic decision should be faced squarely: whether to give Sen. Grassley, who has already served 42 years in the Senate, another six-year term.

Grassley’s decision to run again at age 88 is not quite completely unprecedented, but it is highly unusual. Senators, of course, are not term limited, but Senate history shows a strong pattern. Howard Baker of Tennessee, the universally admired Republican leader, retired after three terms (18 years). Mike Mansfield of Montana, the universally admired Democratic leader, retired after four terms (24 years). For decades, many respected senators reached essentially the same conclusion. Those who retired after three terms included Republicans John Danforth, Alan Simpson, Trent Lott, Lamar Alexander, Nancy Kassebaum, William Cohen, and Olympia Snowe, and Democrats Bill Bradley, Howell Heflin, Abraham Ribicoff, David Pryor, and David Boren. Those who retired after four terms included Republicans Mike Enzi, Pat Roberts, and Don Nickles, and Democrats Sam Nunn, Joseph Lieberman, Dale Bumpers, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Barbara Boxer, Alan Cranston, and Kent Conrad.

Some senators served longer; even as the Senate became increasingly dysfunctional, many senators stayed for five terms (30 years). But the retirement decisions of those senators also fall into a pattern. As they approached the thirty-year mark, usually in their late 70s or age 80, they realized that it was time to leave, rather than commit to a year of campaigning and then six more years in the Senate. Iowa’s Tom Harkin made that choice at age 75. Others in this category include Republicans John Warner, Mark Hatfield, and Jesse Helms, and Democrats Carl Levin, Barbara Mikulski, Jeff Bingaman, and Patrick Leahy (who is retiring at 80, after seven terms.). These men and women understood that part of their responsibility, to their states and the nation, was to know when to step aside and let the torch of leadership pass to a younger person.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but generally they end badly. Carl Hayden, at 91, mistook a phone booth for an elevator, walked in, and said: “Down.” Robert Byrd, one of the greatest senators, who was a powerful opponent of the Iraq War at the age of 85, became a shadow of himself before dying in office at 92. Strom Thurmond, who died in office at 100, was a joke and an embarrassment; virtually unable to speak or hear, he had to be carried into committee meetings. More recently, Dianne Feinstein chose to run at age 85, won another term, and tarnished her storied career; her decision to run is regarded by her friends and admirers as a tragic mistake.

Fully aware of these examples, good and bad, Sen. Grassley decided that seven terms are not enough for him. He apparently cannot conceive of life without being in the Senate, or regards himself as indispensable, or both, but his decision clearly shows egregiously bad judgment, which is not going to improve between ages 89 and 95.

It is possible that, deep down, Sen. Grassley knows what he should have done, but was prevailed upon to run one more time by Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Grassley has sacrificed his independent judgment before at McConnell’s request. In July 2020, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ill-health, Grassley said that if he were still chairing the Judiciary Committee, he would not take up a nomination to the Supreme Court just weeks before a presidential election. But after Justice Ginsburg’s death, since he was no longer chairman, Grassley cast a decisive vote in ramming through Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation eight days before Election Day. Despite his stature and experience, Grassley did something he knew to be wrong, which had profound consequences for the Senate, the Court, and the American people.

As a former Senate staffer and now a Senate historian, I’m one of many Democrats who has admired Sen. Grassley’s cantankerous independence over the years. But he has already had the extraordinary privilege of being a United States senator for forty-two years— more than five times longer than the eight years that any president is allowed to serve. Retiring honorably after having served long and well, as Sen. Harkin or former Republican Gov. Bob Ray did, should have been an easy call for Grassley. The fact that he couldn’t do it calls to mind one of the most familiar cries in politics: “Time for a change.”

Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and Clinton administration official, is the author of three books about the Senate. His new book is “The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America.” His website is

Ira Shapiro predicts dark legacy for McConnell in The Betrayal — The Blueprint

While Shapiro covers the Senate’s response to the Trump administration in chronological order, somehow his book reads as a horror story that continues devolving until the insurrectionist denouement.

Stephen Wentzell — May 26, 2022

Fewer presidencies have resulted in more controversy than that of Donald Trump. From firing the FBI director and mischaracterizing the Mueller Report, to seating three Supreme Court justices and surviving two impeachments, Trump survived scandal after scandal.

How a president can withstand such devastating derelictions of duty is the subject of Ira Shapiro’s new book, The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America, where Shapiro makes the case that McConnell aided and abetted the Trump presidency to the bitter end.

Shapiro is uniquely positioned to write about McConnell’s leadership after spending more than a decade working in senior positions in the U.S. Senate as well as serving as Bill Clinton’s chief trade negotiator with Canada and Japan. Overall, Shapiro spent 45 years in Washington focusing on international trade and national politics.

While Shapiro covers the Senate’s response to the Trump administration in chronological order, somehow his book reads as a horror story that continues devolving until the insurrectionist denouement.

Shapiro has written two other books about the Senate, but in an interview with The Blueprint, he explained what sets The Betrayal apart from the others.

The idea for The Betrayal came months before the Jan. 6 insurrection, during the summer of 2020. During this time, Shapiro was calling for governors to take the lead in forcing Trump to resign, referring to the former Trump Steaks creator as “an unhinged president during a pandemic,” who was spewing misinformation, rallying Republican governors against Blue State governors, and ignoring the experts on COVID-19.

But for Shapiro, there was something even more worrisome at hand: Trump was signalling he wasn’t going to respect the results of the election.

“I think the Trump presidency was a catastrophe for the country [but] the catastrophic failure of government was the Senate,” Shapiro said. “They’re the ones who were supposed to check the president.”

While the Senate’s purpose has always been to keep checks and balances on the presidency, McConnell has weaponized the institution to protect the Republican party and its president at all costs.

“Most senators show a willingness to balance their commitment to the party with their own independent judgment,” Shapiro noted, adding their six-year terms provide senators with more independence than members of Congress who serve for two years at a time.

Shapiro’s book begins with three distinct quotes, but for this reviewer, the most powerful of all came from George Ball in 1964: “He who rides the tiger cannot choose where he dismounts.”

The Betrayal captures the highs and lows of McConnell’s career, with Shapiro recognizing that few political figures have had such a significant impact on American politics as the current Senate Minority Leader.

But that legacy, Shapiro explains, is mired by a dereliction of duty and an underestimation of Trump’s depravity. Calling McConnell “an exceptionally skillful politician [and] a master strategist,” he says McConnell has been undeniably effective at accomplishing his political goals. Unfortunately, Shapiro added, those accomplishments have been to his personal benefit and Republican power, “at a great cost to the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the United States as a nation.”

While Shapiro condemns the actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, he recognizes that many of them believed they were doing something patriotic simply because their president asked them to.

The Betrayal concludes in the aftermath of Jan. 6, with McConnell speaking out vehemently against Trump in public but voting to acquit the president when push comes to shove. For Shapiro, the insurrection only strengthened his argument, noting that Republican senators couldn’t bring themselves to convict Trump even after their lives were put in danger by the domestic terrorists incited by their president.

Ending the filibuster and a return to governing with conscience

Over the years, the filibuster has become one of McConnell’s greatest political weapons. By requiring 60 votes to end debate, McConnell has prevented legislation on voting rights, pandemic supports, and even a Supreme Court Justice nominee’s confirmation in 2016.

Now, Shapiro says, is the time to get rid of the filibuster, saying the tool has become “corrupted over time.”

“I grew up at a time in the Senate working there when filibusters, we like to say, were real but rare,” he said.

While many pundits fear that ending the filibuster could backfire on Democrats if Trump wins a second term in 2024, Shapiro believes the only way to stop them is “with some people of conscience.”

“If you have an institution that’s blocking government action, year after year, that’s not a workable institution,” he explained.

In his book, Shapiro referred to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation—which took place after millions of Americans had already voted in the 2020 Presidential election—as the Banana Republic Confirmation.

“I found it to be a terrible act and shockingly disconnected from anything resembling our democracy,” Shapiro told me. While he explained that McConnell’s blocking of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court was an act of unprecedented hardball, arguably, at least the voters had some say in deciding the next justice. “In this case, [McConnell] took that away from the voters, ramming through a confirmation eight days before election day, after 50 million people had already voted,” he said.

Shapiro said that after finishing his second book on the Senate in 2018, he felt a moderate and cautious sense of optimism that Congress could rise to the challenges posed by Trump. Led by the political independence of Republicans like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and the late John McCain, Shapiro believed there was a core group of Republicans—that occasionally included Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski—who would be enough to keep Trump in check. That optimism, while admittedly unjustified, served as the blueprint for The Betrayal.

“One thing I learned was that I had an idealized view of the Senate and Senators,” Shapiro told me. “Based on my experience and what I had seen, heard, and learned, I would have thought if things got bad enough, they would step up. And that was wrong.”

Ultimately, Shapiro says he wrote The Betrayal in an effort to play some small part in the fight for democracy. In a plea to the GOP, Shapiro urged Republicans to strive to be their best selves rather than do things they consciously know are both wrong and anti-democratic.

Will they heed Shapiro’s call? Only time will tell.

Longtime Senate staffer sears McConnell and his caucus in ‘The Betrayal’ — JPR

Published May 16, 2022 at 10:01 AM PDT

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell is comfortable using all the tools at his disposal to achieve the goals of his Republican caucus.

Ira Shapiro is one of several people looking on the scene in dismay. Shapiro was a senate staffer many years ago, working with some of the powerful (and bipartisan) figures he profiled in his book The Last Great Senate.

Shapiro puts his focus squarely on McConnell and his work during the Trump presidency in a new book. The title alone pulls no punches: The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America.

The author joins us to add detail to his a story of a senate acting very differently from how it approached its business in decades past.

How Mitch McConnell Made the Senate Even Worse

Republican power grabs and hyper partisanship are just part of his grim reign as Senate Republican Leader.

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.

The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America
By Ira Shapiro
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 294 pp.

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 Mississippi 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 larresponsible 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.

How Mitch McConnell Wrecked the Senate

Obstructionist under Obama, battering ram under Trump, and a threat to democracy in both guises. An exclusive book excerpt.

The disgraceful performance by the Senate Republicans at the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Jackson shows that they pose a continuing threat to the mutual respect, civil discourse, and good faith that are essential to the working of our democracy. Senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz are obviously unrepentant for the near-death experience that they put our democracy through by failing to check Donald Trump’s abuses of power.

Make no mistake: the Senate’s performance during the Trump presidency is the story of the most catastrophic failure of government in American history. That failure undermined the rule of law and threatened our constitutional rights. It deepened our divisions, pitting red states against blue states, whites against Blacks. It endangered our national security, weakening our alliances and strengthening our adversaries. It caused many thousands of Americans to die needlessly before their time. It led directly to the insurrection at the Capitol.

Most American history is written about the presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan—or great events like the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression, World War II, Vietnam. Donald Trump’s aberrational presidency has already been the subject of more than 1,200 books; at least 1,200 more will emerge in the years to come. People here and around the world will ask how America, the greatest power in the world, elevated to the presidency a celebrity reality TV star with no experience in government, whose tumultuous business record, deeply flawed personality, abuse of women, and hatred of minorities were all plainly visible.

But in the American constitutional system, no one person—not even a president—should be able to undermine our institutions and jeopardize our democracy. The framers of the Constitution wanted a strong central government because the weakness of the Articles of Confederation showed the limits of what the states could accomplish on their own. But having fought the American Revolution to free the colonies from Great Britain and its monarch, our founders feared the possibility of an overreaching executive who would seek to become a king or an autocrat. They also feared that a president might be corrupt, pursuing personal gain instead of the national interest, and that he could be susceptible to powerful foreign influences.

Consequently, the founders designed a system of checks and balances, the most distinctive feature of which was the Senate. They made it the strongest upper house in the world, with the power to “advise and consent” on executive and judicial nominations, to ratify treaties, and to hold impeachment trials. James Madison, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1787, called the Senate “the great anchor of the government.… Such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”

The Senate would be assigned many functions, but it had one fundamental responsibility: to be a bulwark against any leader who would abuse the great powers of the presidency in ways that threatened our democracy. Some 230 years later, when just such a president finally reached the White House, the Senate should have been democracy’s strongest line of defense. Instead, a nightmare scenario followed: the Senate, weakened from a long period of accelerating decline, proved utterly incapable of checking Trump’s authoritarian desires. Sometimes the Senate Republican majority aided and abetted Trump; often it simply stood by and allowed him to rampage unchecked. America had no defense against the novel threat presented by the unholy alliance between Trump and the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in a moment of anger, correctly observed that the founders had not contemplated the combination of “a rogue president and a rogue majority leader.”

The magnitude of the Senate’s failure should be clearly understood. The Senate did not fail because of its arcane rules or because of the abuse of the filibuster. It wasn’t because its members lacked the ability to do their jobs. Nor did it fail because the senators missed the danger signs. The overwhelming majority of the Senate knew that Trump was incompetent, corrupt, and dangerous; indeed, many saw him as a witting or unwitting agent of Vladimir Putin.

No, the Senate failed because its Republican members, led by McConnell, abandoned the late Senator John McCain’s guiding principle: “Country first.” When it mattered most, the Republican senators put their personal political interests first, the Republican Party’s interests second, and country’s interests nowhere. As America faced unprecedented, cascading, intersecting crises, the Republican senators chose to stand with Trump, either actively supporting him or silently acquiescing. Some undoubtedly convinced themselves that Trump would wither away or that they would find an exit ramp. But as George Ball, the State Department official who famously dissented from the escalation of the Vietnam War, observed: “He who rides the tiger cannot choose where he dismounts.”

There is a familiar Sicilian proverb, “A fish rots from the head.” The story of the Senate’s rot is first and foremost the story of Mitch McConnell. He was an unyielding obstructionist during the Obama presidency, culminating in his refusal to hold a vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. In contrast, McConnell became a relentless battering ram with Trump in the White House. He rode roughshod over one Senate custom, norm, and tradition after another. After Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency, America urgently needed a strong Senate, with a leader in the mold of Democrat Mike Mansfield or Republican Howard Baker, politicians who are rightly remembered as great statesmen and patriots. Instead, America got McConnell, a superb political strategist and tactician who was extraordinarily effective in achieving his partisan objectives, at great cost to the Senate and the country that depended on it.

Of course, even McConnell, the most powerful Senate leader in history, could not have done what he did without his troops. Throughout the Trump presidency, McConnell had only a very narrow majority with which to work. At any moment, three or four Republicans could have stopped him in his tracks. This happened exactly once, in July 2017, when John McCain, dying of brain cancer, memorably joined Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in defeating McConnell’s brazen attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act without hearings, committee action, or floor debate.

Just as McConnell enabled Trump, the other Senate Republicans enabled McConnell. Except for Mitt Romney, who cast the only Republican vote to remove Trump from office in the first impeachment trial, all the Republican senators were complicit. The shameless Lindsey Graham, who had been John McCain’s best friend and Donald Trump’s most scathing critic, spun 180 degrees to become Trump’s favorite golf partner and McConnell’s wing man. Less verbose and simply shameful, Lamar Alexander and Rob Portman, two once-superb public servants, allowed themselves to become virtually invisible at every moment when their voices and their stature would have been useful to call attention to Trump’s abuses of the presidential office.

In the crisis year of 2020, one of the darkest in American history, McConnell and his Republican caucus exonerated Trump after his first impeachment despite uncontroverted evidence that he withheld military assistance from Ukraine to benefit his presidential campaign by damaging Joe Biden, his strongest potential opponent. They averted their eyes as Trump lied about Covid-19, hawked fake cures for the virus, attacked blue state governors, and mocked masks and social distancing—a deluge of misinformation that caused thousands of needless deaths. They opted for silence when Trump invited his supporters to indoor rallies at the peak of the pandemic. They allowed Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election was stolen to poison the thinking of 70 percent of his voters—roughly 50 million Americans. They roused themselves to action only long enough to ram through the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court eight days before Election Day. A dozen of them refused to certify the Electoral College results, providing an opportunity for the January 6 assault on the Capitol. The Senate’s Republican members did not just fail; they betrayed their oaths of office, sacrificing American lives and American democracy.

America has paid a terrible price for the experiment with Trump, a narcissistic outsider and disrupter, with authoritarian impulses and contempt for our democratic institutions. But it is McConnell, the political stalwart and faux institutionalist, who poisoned and undermined our political system from within, transforming the Senate into a hyper-partisan battle zone, draining it of the trust and pride that made it work in its great days, while using it for his own purposes. Years before Donald Trump became president, we were living in Mitch McConnell’s America; even with Joe Biden in the White House, to a greater extent than might have been anticipated, we still are.

Midterm elections pose an enormous challenge for the party that holds the White House, but the Democrats have a favorable map for the 2022 Senate elections. A Senate with 53 or 55 Democrats, instead of the current 50, would bring about a sea change in American politics. In a time of crisis and uncertainty, we can be sure of one thing. America will not have a decent politics or a functioning government unless the power of Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans is sharply reduced. They must be held accountable for their past failures and prevented from inflicting any more harm.

This essay is adapted from The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America, to be released May 17. Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and Clinton administration trade official, is the author of The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America and The Last Great Senate.