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Why this liberal is calling for a (muted) cheer for Mitch McConnell

Fanaticism of Trump, House Republicans paints GOP leader in new light

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference at the Capitol on March 7.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference at the Capitol on March 7. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

These are words that I never thought that I would type: I miss Mitch McConnell.

After a fall, a concussion and a five-day hospital stay, the 81-year-old Senate Republican leader is now recovering at a rehabilitation facility.

I have long subscribed to the orthodox liberal view of McConnell as an amoral partisan infighter who has aggressively weaponized the filibuster to thwart any Democratic president. The Kentucky senator also set up an assembly line to confirm right-wing federal judges and Supreme Court justices that Henry Ford might have envied.

Under this interpretation, McConnell has no consistent ideology beyond scheming for political advantage, and his only belief system is gamesmanship.

After all, Alec MacGillis’ less-than-admiring 2014 biography of McConnell was titled “The Cynic.”

A case can be made that McConnell is, at best, a minor-league Machiavelli.

The Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the deregulation of political money that McConnell has long championed did not create an enduring GOP majority, since Democrats proved equally adept at courting hedge fund billionaires.

McConnell probably would be Senate majority leader right now if the Supreme Court last year had not overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that had protected abortion rights.

Had McConnell permitted then-Judge Merrick B. Garland to be confirmed in 2016 — rather than thuggishly preventing the Barack Obama nominee from even getting a hearing — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. would likely have had been able to orchestrate a far less politically inflammatory anti-abortion decision.

But McConnell’s absence from Capitol Hill serves as a reminder that this purported soulless cynic does firmly hold three important beliefs that put him at odds with former President Donald Trump and the QAnon-tinged incendiaries who shape the House Republican caucus.

McConnell has, at times, been a fierce opponent of the Trumpian view that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was merely high-spirited patriots and tourists visiting their elected representatives.

In a Senate floor speech in mid-January 2021, McConnell declared that the “mob” was “provoked by the president and other powerful people.” The Senate Republican leader’s words were so forceful that there was speculation McConnell might even vote “guilty” in Trump’s impeachment trial.

McConnell could never go that far. And, over the past two years, he has periodically displayed selective amnesia about Trump’s misdeeds.

But earlier this month, when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy irresponsibly handed over 40,000 hours of unedited security tapes from Jan. 6 to Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, McConnell knew where his loyalties lay. He stood with the U.S. Capitol Police in denouncing the Fox News broadcast.

Unlike that of many House Republican zealots, McConnell’s sense of partisanship does not extend to repudiating the national debt and bringing on a global fiscal crisis.

At an earlier moment of brinkmanship over the statutory debt ceiling at the end of Obama’s first term, McConnell negotiated a deal with a vice president named Joe Biden to avert a default by the federal government.

This time around — even though Senate Republicans so far have been on the sidelines in the coming confrontation between President Biden and McCarthy — McConnell has been unequivocal about the need to defuse the crisis.

“I think the important thing to remember is America must never default on its debt,” McConnell said in January. “It never has and never will.” It is a measure of the fanaticism of Trump and the House Republicans that commonsense observations like this can get McConnell denounced as a would-be Democratic imposter.

Meantime, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has joined Trump in the rain-on-Ukraine-and-let-Kyiv-cave camp, McConnell has been consistently outspoken against Russian “thuggery.”

As an apostle of a Ronald Reagan-esque foreign policy, McConnell has never fallen into the trap of regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin as a misunderstood apostle of conservative family values. Nor has McConnell wavered from his opposition to feckless GOP isolationism.

Cult of personality

I am not proposing that we erect a statue to McConnell simply because he is opposed to mobs sacking the Capitol, Congress repudiating the national debt and America turning a blind eye to a Russian invasion, war crimes and the threat to NATO.

Nor am I comparing McConnell — who out of political calculation sometimes puts his beliefs in a blind trust — to the courageous Liz Cheney, the former GOP congresswoman who was vice chair of the select House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack and issued a final report that blistered Trump over his role. Rather than attacking Trump, McConnell’s usual style has been to pretend that the former president has taken a vow of silence in a monk’s cell at Mar-a-Lago.

But, like Cheney, McConnell serves as a reminder that political figures can be more complicated than the cardboard cutouts that dominate partisan demonology.

A few years ago, I could never imagine forgiving anyone named Cheney for support of waterboarding and other forms of torture after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Trump, of course, deserves credit for my growing sense of nuance about traditional hawkish, pro-business Republicans. By turning large segments of the GOP into a cheering section for election denial, nutcase conspiracy theories and isolationism, Trump has inadvertently spotlighted those Republicans who cling to an old-fashioned definition of conservatism.

In a sense, Trump has also allowed us to look at the partisan controversies of the Obama years in a new light. Just as Obama was no anti-American, left-wing socialist, so, too, was the bygone Republican Party that nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney not a cabal of heartless reactionaries.

The once-and-possibly-future Trump presidency reminds us that there are broad lines in American politics separating a belief in democracy from a belief in the cult of personality.

And McConnell — for all his faults, failings and fidelity to the filibuster — is now on the right side of the line when it comes to upholding the basic tenets of democracy.

So let’s give the ailing Mitch not a standing ovation, but at least a muted cheer.

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