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It’s Over Mitch, Go Rogue
For Ukraine, but also for yourself.
THERE ARE PROBABLY plenty of Derby days ahead back home for Sen. Mitch McConnell, but his time as the longest-running Senate party leader in history is coming to an end.
The 81-year-old Kentuckian looks different, and sounds different, than he did a year ago. His aging is pronounced: A fall and concussion, and then moments of freezing up during speech, have called his health into question.
Yet in the last year McConnell’s party has actually changed more than he has. And that is likely the bigger threat to his ability to stay in power.
Set aside the defeat in yesterday’s off-year elections of a McConnell protégé—his former staffer Daniel Cameron—in Kentucky’s governor’s race. That loss suggests that McConnell’s political strength is flagging in his home state. But step back and look at the bigger picture.
Before the midterm elections of 2022, when Donald Trump’s wacko election-denier candidates were winning Republican primaries, McConnell worried aloud about “candidate quality.” He was right: Trump’s picks lost winnable Senate races that would have made McConnell majority leader again. And McConnell wasn’t alone in blaming Trump: The ex-president was criticized broadly for backing extremists who stopped a red wave. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was believed capable of taking on Trump and saving the GOP.
A year ago.
Now the surrender to MAGA is nearly complete.
In the last month alone the election of Rep. Mike Johnson as House speaker proved that the Big Lie is now a litmus test for Republicans in the lower chamber, National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. Steve Daines called on the party to unite around Donald Trump as the GOP presidential nominee two months before any voters have weighed in, and the NRSC also attacked former GOP Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan—someone the party would have considered a dream candidate like, yesterday—saying that he has no business announcing a Senate run because he voted to impeach Trump.
“Peter Meijer isn’t viable in a primary election, and there’s worry that if Meijer were nominated, the base would not be enthused in the general election,” an NRSC spokesman told Politico.
There’s worry alright.
Michigan turned solidly blue last year and Republicans should pray for a candidate like Meijer in a general election there. That the Michigan Republican Party is one of the most deranged GOP state parties in the nation means Meijer wouldn’t likely win the primary, but such an on-the-record statement—from someone on McConnell’s leadership team—shows there is no attempt to hide the capitulation to Trump anymore. This is now business as usual.
What is left of the “establishment” will evaporate by early winter, and McConnell should plan accordingly. The Grand Old Party now has him cornered. And McConnell cannot overcome this with leadership, fundraising, and dedication to the cause.
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Too many Senate Republicans don’t want to follow their leader. Nowhere is this more clear than the fight for democracy abroad, and the defense of Ukraine. As McConnell pushes to pass emergency funds for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan together—as President Biden has requested—he is isolated. The three Johns most likely to replace him as leader—Sens. John Thune, John Cornyn, and John Barrasso—have not backed him up publicly. In September McConnell argued for Ukraine funding to be included in a continuing resolution but was rebuffed by his own GOP colleagues.
Instead some Republican senators want McConnell to show solidarity with the newly elected House speaker, who opposes tying security aid for Israel to any funds for Ukraine.
Sen. Rand Paul told reporters last week that McConnell’s position is “very, very unpopular,” and added “I think ultimately [it] will fail or bring down the speaker, which I don’t think is a good idea.”
Sen. Cynthia Lummus said she was “hopeful that deference will be paid to the House.”
McConnell has met with Johnson and says he plans to do so regularly, but it is not his duty to help the shambolic House GOP conference keep a speaker.
Instead McConnell can work his friend Joe Biden and with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on a compromise that combines border security provisions with the national security supplemental funds. Perhaps that would help improve Biden’s standing against Trump in the general election. But McConnell should support the White House position that Ukraine needs not only materiel but economic assistance in order to prevail against the Russian onslaught that aims to bankrupt the country if it cannot conquer it. And he should not back down from the need to pass security aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan simultaneously.
MCCONNELL CANNOT HOPE to be a hero in the history books. For one thing, he stole a Supreme Court seat (and sadly for him, the ultimate partisan, the left gives him more credit for remaking the courts than his fellow Republicans do). For another, he refused to stand up to Trump’s coup because he wanted Republicans to win the Georgia Senate runoff elections on January 5, 2021. But Trump told Peach State Republicans to stay home from a “rigged” election—so he cost McConnell the majority twice, in January 2021 and again in November 2022.
But McConnell’s greatest failure was his vote on February 13, 2021 to acquit Trump of impeachment for inciting the insurrection. On the same day he said Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for January 6th. McConnell likely could have found 17 votes for conviction, which would have barred Trump from future office. His attempt to have it both ways has landed us here, with Trump well positioned for a second term.
Is McConnell prepared to endorse Trump a third time next spring? If Trump wins next year McConnell is toast. And if Trump loses it is hard to imagine House Republicans won’t object to certifying a Biden 2024 victory—and the MAGA caucus in the Senate will follow suit.
McConnell owes himself a better legacy than being run out of town by J.D. Vance, Ron Johnson, and Donald Trump. He can help the country, and democracy, and himself, by abandoning the needs of his party to do what is right.
Just as both Sen. Mitt Romney and former Vice President Mike Pence have, McConnell can choose to liberate himself from the corruption MAGA has in store for Republicans next year. There is no reason not to—like Pence and Romney, McConnell will find no future work in GOP circles once he leaves the Senate.
Twilight can elicit courage. Cocaine Mitch should go out in a blaze of UniParty glory.