Opinion: Trump’s Two-Front War Against McConnell and North Korea

And why Democrats are in no position to laugh

It may not be long before President Donald Trump starts portraying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as almost as much of a villain as Kim Jong Un, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Pool file photo)
It may not be long before President Donald Trump starts portraying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as almost as much of a villain as Kim Jong Un, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Pool file photo)
Posted August 14, 2017 at 5:03am

If we survive the tweets of August, a Wall Street Journal headline should be immortalized as a symbol of this long hot summer in Trumpland. In the online edition of Friday’s Journal, the subhead on a stock-picking article actually read: “Analysts are trying to work out what happens to the markets they cover in the event of an all-out nuclear war.”

Here’s my personal stock tip for the apocalypse: Invest in personal hygiene companies like Procter & Gamble since we will need plenty of deodorant in our crowded fallout shelters.

Learning nothing from history, Donald Trump decided this week to wage a two-front war. While the man entrusted with the nuclear codes has not yet threatened Mitch McConnell with “fire and fury,” it may not be long before the president starts portraying the Senate majority leader as almost as much of a villain as Kim Jong Un.

Flogging the leader

Beginning on Wednesday, Trump has belittled McConnell in a series of tweets like this one: “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!”

And in a Thursday vacation press conference at his New Jersey golf course, Trump implied that McConnell should retire from the Senate and enter an ashram if he can’t immediately pass the Obamacare repeal, a tax bill and an infrastructure plan. All this while the Senate will be simultaneously dealing with minor concerns like the debt ceiling and the budget.

By attacking McConnell, Trump threw all his ironies in the fire.

The president glossed over McConnell’s Bronx cheer to Senate traditions as the majority leader jettisoned hearings and serious debate in a desperate effort to plunge across the 50-vote barrier with something called a replacement to Obamacare.

Trump also does not appear to recognize that his deal-making skills on Capitol Hill resemble the bankruptcy phase of his real estate career.

Well-placed Republicans believe they probably would have gotten Lisa Murkowski’s vote if Trump had not threatened federal funding for Alaska. And let us never forget that swing-vote John McCain does not measure up to our military-school-graduate president’s definition of a war hero.

McConnell himself also bears some of the blame for the election of Captain Clueless. Aggressively championing the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision and unbridled super PAC barons like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, McConnell weakened the Republican Party and made it vulnerable to a hostile takeover by Trump.

The majority leader’s scorched-earth opposition to Barack Obama also contributed to public cynicism about both parties in Washington. As an emblematic Ohio Trump voter told me last year, “The insiders haven’t gotten anything done. It’s time to give an outsider a chance.”

Democrats’ dilemma

The Democrats are in no position to chortle.

Barring the kind of tidal-wave election that gives Nebraska a seacoast, McConnell will still be majority leader when the 116th Congress is sworn in next January. While it is significant that cautious Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema seems poised to enter the Arizona Senate race against Jeff Flake, the 2018 map is rigged for the Republicans. Nevada’s Dean Heller is the only GOP incumbent on the ballot who represents a state carried by Hillary Clinton.

Senate Democrats, in contrast, face more geographic challenges than the Donner Party.

There’s Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, a state that hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential race since Lyndon Johnson swept Barry Goldwater in 1964. Indiana (Joe Donnelly) is a state whose post-LBJ GOP pedigree is only marred by Obama’s surprising 2008 victory. Ditto for Montana (Jon Tester) where Bill Clinton in 1992 remains the only Democratic presidential candidate to prevail since 1964.

[Roll Call’s 2018 Election Guide]

Democrats also should not be too giddy about their chances of picking up the 24 seats needed to make Paul Ryan a former House speaker.

There is a reason why Nancy Pelosi shows up more frequently than the American flag in Republican TV ads. In recent polls, Pelosi’s approval ratings range from 17 percent to 33 percent. What makes these poll numbers particularly toxic is that Pelosi — who has been the House Democratic leader since 2002 — boasts a significantly higher level of name recognition than, say, Chuck Schumer.

Pelosi and Schumer are old enough to recall the emergence of the political phrase “litmus test” during the 1970s to describe a single-issue measure of political purity. Back in those days, opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty was a litmus test for conservative followers of the pre-presidential Ronald Reagan. After 1980, opposition to Roe v. Wade became a common GOP litmus test.

Now Democrats have their own chemistry-set problems.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recently came under attack from groups like NARAL for declaring that he was opposed to a “litmus test” on abortion rights for Democratic candidates. At the same time, Bernie Sanders and his left-wing armies are close to demanding that the only acceptable Democratic position on health care is single-payer.

This is one of the traditional dangers for a party stripped of political power — the zealots turn their rage against the supposed moderate views of their leaders. This is how the Republicans from John Boehner on down became tyrannized by the tea party beginning in 2010. Now the Democrats are illustrating that they too are willing to swap electability for ideological purity.

It all brings to mind “Ninotchka,” the epic 1939 Ernst Lubitsch comedy starring Greta Garbo about Soviet Russians in Paris.

Arriving from Moscow, Garbo, playing a stern Stalinist, is asked how the purges are going. She replies in a classic of comic understatement, “There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

Memo to the Democrats: Fewer but better does not win elections.