In the last two years of Obama’s administration, McConnell succeeded in confirming a mere 22 of its judicial nominees, the lowest total in 65 years. In February 2016, news of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death had hardly sparked the wires before McConnell determined, without consulting any of his colleagues, to refuse consideration of Obama’s pick to replace him. It was a breathtaking gamble. Not just on his colleagues’ willingness to withstand the backlash, but also on a Republican’s ability to win the presidency.
It is perhaps a surprise even to McConnell that the full scope of his leadership has been made possible by a man who once posed on the cover of Playboy. Yet the fact is that Donald Trump has allowed McConnell to shape for himself the legacy he’s always wanted. McConnell has shuttled through more circuit-court judges than any recent Congress at this point in a president’s first term. He still has a dozen seats left to fill, not to mention the hundred or so in the district courts. In April 2017, Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court sailed through the Senate. Which brings us to today, where the outcome of Kavanaugh’s nomination could crystallize McConnell’s legacy: either as the shrewd, ideologically ambivalent tactician who set a goal of flipping the courts, and three years later—not even a sexual-assault allegation capable of rattling him—did just that. Or as a leader who, despite his best efforts, just couldn’t close the deal.