Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks off the Senate floor...

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks off the Senate floor after speaking, Wednesday, at the Capitol in Washington.  Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

A great many things came to mind for a great many people this past week when Mitch McConnell announced he would be stepping down this fall as leader of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate.

A great many things, that is, after the initial rush of endorphins to those brains whose Pavlovian response to the utterance of his name has long been the emittance of sharp pangs of discomfort. That burst of euphoria was no doubt followed closely by a PTSD-like recitation of his greatest hits of obstructionism.

But a full accounting would include another series of other thoughts, confirming a suspicion that painting people’s careers solely in tones of black or white might not always be fair. Sometimes, perhaps most times, gray is a better color.

Whether you view certain of McConnell’s actions as delectable or detestable depends on how your sense of right and wrong is calibrated — which is to say, it depends on your politics. There are those who consider him one of the most effective Senate majority leaders in history. Others recall the words of historian Christopher R. Browning, who called McConnell “the gravedigger of American democracy.”

The latter group riffs back to Barack Obama’s presidency, when McConnell systematically blocked lower court appointments — not because the candidates were unfit to serve but because they were being appointed by Obama. And to the Supreme Court disgrace when McConnell refused to even give Merrick Garland a hearing to replace Antonin Scalia and kept the seat open for more than a year — and when, four years later, he trashed his own warped reasoning to rush through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

McConnell fought against attempts to reduce the influence of money in politics, voted against needed election reforms, and tried to repeal the successful Affordable Care Act. During the 2020 campaign, he vowed he would be the “Grim Reaper” for Democratic legislation if Joe Biden won.

But then critics must also riff to the Donald Trump years, when McConnell was one of the few Republican voices of occasional rebuke who had his own way of making his disdain clear — after the Jan. 6 insurrection, anyway — and who has maintained that Biden was the legitimate winner in 2020. This McConnell has been a stalwart for aid to Ukraine, has continued to believe in the critical importance of America’s global leadership, voted for both the $1 trillion infrastructure act and the $280 billion CHIPS bill, and supported a bipartisan deal on gun safety.

Is this McConnell a changed McConnell, or a McConnell whose party has changed?

There are more complications. Like Biden acknowledging the two men “fight like hell” while maintaining that McConnell “has never, never, never misrepresented anything” — which in today’s misinformation economy counts for something. And like McConnell’s GOP colleagues with less tenure, more ambition and harder edges, yearning for and applauding his departure announcement, which could force someone to start making some enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-what-exactly calculations.

Part of McConnell’s legacy — which is, after all, what we’re deciding — will be the way he serves as yet one more example of the dangers of hanging on too long. He alluded to that in his Senate speech on Wednesday, apparently congratulating himself on knowing when to make an exit. But that came after at least two occasions in the past year when the now-82-year-old Kentuckian froze in front of the cameras, apparently unable to speak or process information.

In what shade will McConnell be painted? There is time for that final arbitration — he is, after all, departing in one sense but not the other. But at the very least, even McConnell is proof that most folks are complicated.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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