Mitch McConnell is trying to prevent a Republican civil war, but is Trump?

Published 8:18 am Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Guest columnist

In the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency, I asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if America’s most unusual president was changing the political rule book and playbook. He neither rejected nor embraced the idea:

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“You’re a columnist and you can write that opinion. It’s interesting that he’s now got a sculpture of Andrew Jackson behind his desk in the Oval Office, and brought in a portrait. Jackson was totally different from all the Virginia and Massachusetts gentlemen [who preceded him]. So, yeah, no question about it, he’s different.” (But not in a dangerous way, he added in response to a follow-up question.)

Andrew Jackson founded the Democratic Party and, by extension, the two-party system. Donald Trump, in his recent dealings with McConnell and Democratic leaders, appears to have something else in mind.

When I told McConnell that Thursday, he laughed loud and long. And then he continued to normalize Trump — who has criticized his management of the Senate and the work of other Republican senators, and who on Sept. 6 cut a debt-ceiling deal with Democrats, rejecting plans of McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump’s own lieutenants.

That was Trump’s latest rebuke of McConnell, and it happened in the Oval Office, in front of Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — a fellow New Yorker with whom he has chemistry, unlike McConnell. Trump reportedly thinks McConnell and Ryan should protect him from the probe of Russian meddling in the election, and let him down by not passing a health insurance bill; and he was desperate to put points on the board after months of frustration.

Asked if he was shocked at the deal, McConnell said, “I was surprised, but it turned out OK.” The legislative language he drafted authorizes “extraordinary measures” that, in effect, will extend the debt ceiling into 2018 — denying Democrats the leverage they expected a three-month extension would give them in negotiations over a year-end spending deal to keep the government open.

McConnell didn’t get his long-term goal of extending the debt ceiling past the 2018 elections, but his maneuver showed it’s still good to be majority leader — even if you have to deal with a president who doesn’t play by the rules to which you are accustomed. And though he leaked worries last month about the future of Trump’s presidency, he remains a team player, at least publicly. A civil war in his party isn’t in his best interests.

“The policy of this administration, with the possible exception of trade, is very similar to what would have been the policy in a Jeb Bush admin or a Marco Rubio administration,” McConnell told me Thursday. “This is essentially a right-of-center, pro-business administration,” which he said is needed to get the economy to 3 percent growth — a goal he and Trump share.

Trump’s dealings with Democrats, most recently on the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, seem to have made him more comfortable in the job. He is now acting in space he creates, not the constitutionally structured space in which McConnell and his colleagues want to operate.

When I told McConnell that, he continued his upbeat tone about Trump: “I think he’s doing pretty well. I think the White House staff is considerably better; I think he’s getting comfortable dealing with Democrats and that’s important.”

What he didn’t say is that Trump’s lead on DACA gives the president the duty to send Congress a bill, mitigating damage Republicans could incur from the anti-immigrant segment of their base – especially if the would-be deal falls apart.

McConnell noted that recent Republican presidents have done deals with Democrats, “and given the way the Senate operates, we need to be able to negotiate agreements with Democrats from time to time … I’ve never been a fan of trying to prevent success on an agenda out of excessive partisanship. Presidents of both parties court members of other parties.”

But they usually don’t attack senators of their own party, as Trump has done with Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. Asked about that, McConnell said, “Certainly I’m gonna be supporting Republican senators up for re-election.”

The leader has surely asked Trump to stay out of those primaries, for which some Trump allies say they are recruiting challengers to Republican incumbents. “I’d rather not talk about private conversations I’ve had with the president about the campaigns,” he said.

A test of Trump as a team player is Alabama’s Sept. 26 runoff election for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat held by appointed Sen. Luther Strange. Trump joined McConnell in backing Strange, but when Strange lost the primary to defrocked judge Roy Moore, Trump’s enthusiasm seemed to cool. Asked if the president is backing off, McConnell said: “I don’t see any evidence of that.”

McConnell is paying close attention to the race in Alabama, his native state. His allies have put millions of dollars behind Strange, and Moore has attacked McConnell as part of the Washington swamp Trump promised to drain. “Looks like I’m on the ballot down there after all, after all these years,” McConnell said with a laugh. But he added, “Most people in Alabama don’t know who I am.”

They are likely to get more reminders before Sept. 26, and not just from Moore and his ads. McConnell and Ryan are increasingly targets of partisan-media critics who see them as insufficiently conservative. Some probably want to ride the popularity Trump continues to enjoy among Republicans. That includes talker Sean Hannity, who claims Trump had to deal with Democrats because McConnell can’t deliver, and said the majority leader should resign if he couldn’t pass a tax-reform bill.

Asked about such attacks, McConnell said, “If you accept responsibility in the American political system, the higher up you go, the more slings and arrows you get.” Alluding to his low job-approval numbers, he said, “The poll that counts is the one after you’ve had an opportunity to state your case to the people you represent.”

McConnell said he plans to do that when he’s up for re-election in Kentucky in 2020. But he would be 78 years old then and being Trump’s majority leader must be a tiring job.

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.