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Commentary Election 2022

Josh Kurtz: Author, Author (Part Two)!

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

If you look back over the political chaos of the last half-dozen years or so, many Americans of all political stripes — though surely not all — would place the lion’s share of blame at the feet of former President Donald Trump.

Trump, after all, has been all about shattering consequential norms on an infinite variety of levels, thriving on the disorder.

But Marylander Ira Shapiro sees things a little differently. He traces the political dysfunction in America back several years earlier and places the blame squarely on U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“The current state of American politics really didn’t start with Trump,” Shapiro said in an interview. “The long decline really started with McConnell. I’m McConnell obsessed. A lot of people have Trump derangement syndrome. I have McConnell derangement syndrome.”

Shapiro feels so passionately about this thesis that he has written book about it. Published in May, “Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans Abandoned America,” walks the reader, in painstaking and often painful detail, through the sins of commission and omission that McConnell has perpetrated against American democracy.

Shapiro knows of what he speaks. He arrived in Washington, D.C., at the age of 21, in June of 1969 to take an internship in the U.S. Senate. He got married at the same time (his wife, Nancy Shapiro, is an administrator at the University System of Maryland, College Park).

“I’m still married and I’m still obsessed” with the Senate, he said.

After graduating from law school, Shapiro took a series of important and powerful staff jobs in the Senate, then moved on to become a high-ranking trade and foreign policy official in the Clinton administration and followed that with an influential consulting career.

He’s best known in these parts for running an estimable but doomed campaign for the 8th congressional district seat in 2002. Shapiro had the brains, policy chops, and self-deprecating sense of humor to be a quality candidate in just about any congressional district in the country. But that year, he ran into the dueling political buzzsaws of then-state Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) and then-Del. Mark Shriver — formidable Democratic primary foes indeed.

It’s to Shapiro’s credit that he considers both Shriver and Van Hollen friends to this day.

But no matter what he’s done professionally, he’s maintained that obsession with the Senate. “Betrayal” is the third in a trilogy of books he’s written about the institution.

In 2012, he published “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis,” which looked at the legislative achievements of a Senate, led by Democrats but with important Republican figures committed to sound policymaking, in the 1960s and 1970s. He followed that up with a book published in early 2018, called “Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?” which contains multiple warnings about how the Senate was becoming hyperpartisan and grossly ineffective.

But even that book ended with a few notes of optimism. John McCain was still alive. The Senate Intelligence Committee, with a Republican chair, was probing Trump’s ties to Russia. Some Republican senators — most notably Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona — were questioning Trump’s honesty and sanity.

“I was feeling OK about things, and then it all turned worse,” Shapiro said. “Corker and Flake retired. McCain died. And [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsey Graham effectively died. The independent voices all but disappeared.”

Millions of words have been spilled over the years about Trump’s role in the erosion of U.S. democracy. But in Shapiro’s newest book, the dastardly protagonist is McConnell.

Ira Shapiro

Not that Shapiro has any use for Trump, but he figures that politicians of all stripes should have recognized Trump’s narcissism, incompetence and instability from the start. Instead, Shapiro says, Republicans like McConnell, who recognized the threat Trump posed to democracy, made a bargain with the devil — all in the name of lowering taxes, decimating the regulatory framework, and, most of all, installing a conservative judiciary whose impact will be felt for decades at a minimum.

But this is less an ideological screed by an admittedly partisan Democrat than it is a requiem for democracy, and after McConnell, Shapiro saves some of his most scathing commentary for Republican senators who appeared committed to governing, like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rob Portman of Ohio, but kept silent during the Trump era.

“They had a special responsibility,” he said. “They had a privileged position and they could have repaid us by working to preserve democracy. I don’t use the title ‘Betrayal’ lightly.”

Shapiro notes that McConnell was up to some of these tricks during the Obama presidency, when he declared from day one that his main priority was to oppose the new Democratic president, and even dated back to the George W. Bush era, when McConnell became — and remains — the nation’s No. 1 opponent to restricting the influence of money in politics.

Shapiro’s book is organized into 11 digestible chapters, two that provide useful background, one that covers the rise of Trump, and others that take the reader from Senate betrayal to Senate betrayal. The book opens with three killer quotes, and then the author’s observation, “This is the story of the most catastrophic failure of government in American history.”

It’s easy reading — but still hard to take. There are so many incidents that you really don’t want to relive. And yet it’s vital to understanding where our democracy might be heading.

Shapiro has done dozens of interviews since the book was published, including a turn on MSNBC’s “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell.” O’Donnell, like Shapiro, is a former senior Senate staffer who understands. After that appearance, Shapiro’s publishing house quickly realized that it hadn’t printed enough copies. That’s not the worst problem for an author to have.

McConnell has been Senate Republican leader since the end of 2006; later this year, he will tie the late Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield (D) for the record as longest serving Senate party leader. By writing this book, Shapiro said he’s hoping he can contribute to keeping McConnell as minority leader, rather than ascending to the majority leader position.

“I want the book to sell obviously, that’s what authors do,” he said. “But I’d like to be involved in various [Democratic Senate] campaigns, if I can.”

Like McConnell, Shapiro sees himself “playing the long game.”

“It’s right to be depressed,” he said of current events. “But I think the only answer is to win.”

Click here to read “Author, Author (Part One)!”