Rough road not over for Mitch McConnell

Published 8:02 am Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Guest columnist

As Mitch McConnell comes home to Kentucky for a Senate recess after a disappointing summer, he has time to reflect. And listen. And figure.

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In 2014, he overcame intraparty opposition and bad poll numbers to win his sixth term, and his party won control of the Senate — making him majority leader, the job he had sought for a third of his life.

Last fall, American voters gave him a surprise, electing a Republican president, but not the one he had wanted. And now President Donald Trump is increasingly becoming a problem for Senate Republicans and their leader — and a problem for the nation and the world.

Trump didn’t help McConnell’s efforts to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s health care law. That effort ended, at least for the time being, when Sen. John McCain joined two other Republicans in voting down McConnell’s last-ditch effort on July 28. McConnell didn’t really want help from Trump, who displayed a dismal lack of familiarity with the issue, but Vice President Mike Pence showed little effectiveness as the administration front man on the issue.

Republicans’ failure to pass something that they had promised for seven years, and that Trump had grandiloquently guaranteed in his campaign, was a huge embarrassment for the president, whose prime directive seems to be avoiding embarrassment. He lashed out at McConnell and Senate Republicans, demanding a health bill and demanding that they abandon the rule that effectively requires bipartisanship to pass most bills. But that rule hadn’t applied to McConnell’s health bills. Duh.

McConnell said “It’s time to move on” to other issues, but some Republicans, such as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, started pursuing a bipartisan fix for Obamacare’s individual insurance market. It’s not collapsing, as Republicans claim, but it is shaky in Kentucky and many other states.

McConnell had talked about bipartisanship as the alternative if Republicans couldn’t pass a bill on their own, which turned out to be a flawed strategy. But as he declared defeat and said he wanted to hear Democrats’ ideas, he said: “Bailing out insurance companies without any thought of reform is not something I want to be part of.”

That was misleading. Obamacare reimburses the companies for discounts it gives to low- and moderate-income people. The discounts are in the law, so the companies would have to raise premiums if Trump stops the reimbursements, as he has repeatedly threatened to do. It’s part of his half-baked idea to “let Obamacare implode” and blame Democrats.

But the troubles of health insurance pale in comparison to larger issues like national security and even more fundamental concerns: the rule of law and what conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks calls “the basic standards of decency in public life.”

Trump has left the State Department weak at a time when North Korea is a rising threat and other nations wonder about America’s role in the world. He continues to be a tawdry egomaniac and serial falsifier, saying the investigation of Russian meddling in the election is partisan. He seems to think the probe questions his legitimacy, or threatens to reveal some of his darkest secrets or both. If he makes a move, the rule of law must be defended.

Thankfully, this seems to be territory where McConnell draws lines. He has said “Russia is not our friend,” passed sanctions against it over Trump’s objections, and made a maneuver that keeps Trump from using the recess to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions and make it easier to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

But eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Some Republican senators, most notably Arizona’s Jeff Flake, have said they want nothing of Trump’s viciousness and his appeals to the worst devils of our nature. Publicly at least, McConnell has kept quiet about Trump’s behavior, other than to say months ago that “he’s different” and should cut his use of Twitter.

McConnell is compromised by his leadership post, which makes him the Senate’s main link to the White House. His party’s existential interests require at least businesslike relations with Trump, more so than with most presidents; with a loyal nationwide following, Trump could split or even abandon the GOP, which no longer has a place in his inner circle, with Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer gone. At least new Chief of Staff John Kelly offers hope for discipline and focus.

Having undergone a hostile takeover by a populist plutocrat who seems to thrive on chaos, the Republican Party is trying to figure out what it is or should be. Trump’s base is vocal and insistent; Republicans who have misgivings need to speak up while lawmakers are at home during the recess.

Back in Washington, on the walls of McConnell’s office in the Capitol hang many pictures of Republicans, and one Democrat: Alben Barkley of Paducah, the other majority leader from Kentucky. His career has a lesson for McConnell, one the senator knows.

Barkley was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s chief tool in the Senate until they fell out over a World War II tax bill that FDR didn’t think was sufficient but was probably all Barkley could pass. FDR harshly criticized the bill, and Barkley resigned as leader, saying, “I’ve carried that flag over rougher terrain than was ever traversed by any previous majority leader.” His standing soared, and he was promptly re-elected leader.

McConnell’s terrain is rough, too, but not because he’s acting as Trump’s standard-bearer. He’s a go-between in a hard place, and he is a Senate institutionalist. Telling the Barkley-FDR story in Paducah three years ago, he said, “At the end of the day, a legislative party leader is accountable first and foremost to the state that elected him and to his fellow senators, and only then to the president.”

If McConnell seeks re-election in 2020, voters in Kentucky, helped more by Obamacare than those in any other state, can hold him accountable for trying to cut their health care. But as the majority leader working with a troublesome president, he is accountable to the nation right now, through his fellow senators. They are beginning to put national interests above their political interests. They should keep it up.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal.