Much will be said about the legacy of Mitch McConnell, who announced that he is stepping down as Senate Republican leader in November, ending a record-long run at that position. He is despised by all those one would expect a successful GOP floor leader to cross during a long career. That very much includes the right-wing faction represented by the Freedom Caucus, which sent out a zany tweet yesterday calling him the Democratic senator from Ukraine.

McConnell’s career would require book-length treatment, but one aspect of it deserves more attention than it has received. McConnell ran circles around his foes on both sides of the aisle less because of deviousness and more because of his work ethic. That’s a lesson nearly every one of his colleagues could take to heart.

Dan Foster wrote an illustrative account of this in 2013. McConnell, on behalf of Republicans, had to come up with a nominee for the ostensibly nonpartisan Legal Services Corporation, set up by the federal government to help low-income Americans with legal fees. The appointee, however, had to be living fairly close to the federal poverty level. How seriously would most floor leaders take the search for this job? Here’s what McConnell did:

So where on the fruited plain did Mitch McConnell find a competent, dedicated conservative lawyer without two nickels to rub together? As it turns out, in a rectory. Enter Father Pius Pietrzyk, a Dominican parish priest who happened to be a University of Chicago Law School graduate and a stalwart member of the Federalist Society. After practicing corporate and securities law at a big Chicago firm for three years, Pietrzyk left in 2002 to pursue a calling he found more meaningful. He was ordained a priest in the Catholic Church in 2008.

As a Dominican, he took a vow of poverty. And in 2010, President Obama nominated him, and the Democratic Senate confirmed him, to the LSC board of directors. There he sits next to board chairman John G. Levi, another Chicago lawyer (albeit with a significantly higher net worth), whose greatest claim to fame might be that he hired young Michelle LaVaughn Robinson and Barry Obama in the late 1980s.

This level of cleverness put into an agency nobody ever heard of was classic McConnell. No one knew he was doing this stuff day in and day out. In fact, that was why he was able to it. McConnell was fighting the administrative state the only way one could do so successfully. If my memory serves, rather than bask in the credit, his office would have preferred Foster had never found out about this too-good-not-to-share story in the first place.

McConnell’s court legacy is his crown jewel, and that will be the center of a lot of the pieces and cable segments that look back on his career. He did, after all, ensure the remaking of the Supreme Court, leading to conservative victories decades in the making. But the high-profile accomplishments come from the same place as the modest ones: a belief that all his work was important and that he had a responsibility to act accordingly.

These minor victories add up; they are the scaffolding that enables the larger triumphs. McConnell, then, can best be described as a foundational politician. Not in the sense that he created the party, but in the sense that he spent his career building foundations and then, if possible, building on those foundations. He didn’t skip steps. And he made sure that setbacks didn’t drop congressional Republicans back to the bottom.

Foundational politics is rarely practiced by anyone in either major party. But it is especially endangered on the Republican side, where the prevailing response to a problem is to blow it all up and start over, or to insist on working outside the system. Think of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s response to being booted off her congressional committee assignments for making inflammatory comments about other legislators and having in the past endorsed all manner of insane conspiracy theories. “I woke up early this morning literally laughing thinking about what a bunch of morons the Democrats (+11) are for giving some one like me free time,” she tweeted.

Free time for posting on Twitter is not, however, what gives political leaders the last laugh. Plenty of Republicans in Congress have shown they think along similar lines. Yet with McConnell always at work, that attitude cost the GOP a lot less than it will cost going forward without him.

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