“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. . . . On such a full sea are we now afloat.” —Brutus to Cassius, “Julius Caesar,’ Act 4
The last time I talked with Mitch McConnell, I suggested that our next conversation be about the future of the Republican Party (after Donald Trump). I didn’t use the last three words, since it was just before the election.
He was noncommittal, as usual, but he was surely thinking about how he would deal with Trump if the voters ended their political marriage of convenience. The voters did not only that; they gave Democrats control of the Senate.
And then came the tide, the flood, the mob, that ransacked the Capitol and gave McConnell the chance to remake his fortune — not just as Senate minority leader, but as the pre-eminent leader of the Republican Party. That wouldn’t just be good for him or the party; it would be good for the country, considering the alternative.
McConnell had publicly divorced himself from Trump as Congress met to count the electoral votes, but he had to be worried about Trump’s continued disruptive influence in the party, as exhibited by the 13 Republican senators who initially said they would object to votes from states that were key to Joe Biden’s victory.
The insurrection that interrupted the count, and the impeachment it caused, gave McConnell an opening for a power play.
First, he said he had an open mind about convicting Trump — and, presumably, disqualifying him from office, a punishment the Senate could impose, after conviction, with a simple majority vote.
Then he essentially endorsed the charges in the impeachment resolution, saying Tuesday, “This mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
McConnell, who usually observes the maxim that you don’t get into trouble for something you don’t say, has been saying a lot lately. It’s hard to believe he would have, in effect, declared war on Trump without some reasonable expectation that 16 other Republican senators would join him and all 50 Democrats to provide the two-thirds of the Senate needed to convict.
In doing so, they would go against a huge majority of the Republican base, as reflected by some local Kentucky party officials’ effort to get the state party’s ruling body to tell McConnell to stick with Trump. But McConnell just got reelected and is unlikely to run again, so he is insulated from voter retribution.
Also, when it comes to topics that are critical to him, McConnell always knows more than just about anybody else. As a top Senate leader, he probably has access to intelligence and investigative information about the insurrection that could persuade wavering senators to convict and disqualify Trump.
McConnell’s play goes against type, because one of his prime directives as Republican leader has been to avoid dividing his caucus, but the caucus was already splitting into Trump and anti-Trump factions. Looking ahead, even successful votes to convict and disqualify Trump could leave McConnell in a minority of his caucus, not a good place for a leader. And even if Trump were disqualified, he could play martyr and form a third party that could cripple the GOP.
But when a president refuses to concede an election he clearly lost, repeatedly lies about it and fosters a violent attack on Congress, he needs to be barred from public office, as the Constitution’s 14th Amendment says.
Mitch McConnell is the most political of political animals, but he knows his political alliance with Trump, and toleration of his outrages, has permanently stained his reputation.
At nearly 79, how does McConnell want to be remembered? As the chief political enabler of the worst president in history, or as someone who helped reestablish norms of democracy that president trashed?
Some of McConnell’s critics say he’s just trying to help Republicans escape any culpability for the riot. Also, it’s easy to reduce this episode to a simple power struggle between him and Trump, but it’s a lot more than that.
It’s about the future of the Republican Party, of which he is now chief steward, and whether it will return to the norms of democracy or keep playing footsie with an anti-democratic, white-supremacist insurgency that U.S. intelligence agencies identified last year as the main terrorist threat to the United States.
Longtime Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who has reported extensively on extremist groups, wrote before Inauguration Day: “Among the insurgents, ‘Leaders are telling followers: “Don’t do D.C. We’ll live for another day”,’ says one official who’s involved in security planning and familiar with intelligence reports.
That gives you some idea of what’s at stake: a major party, and maybe our country. I’ll take McConnell over Trump.