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Al Cross: McConnell’s speech was a turning point, as he stands up for the truth

On one of the most dramatic days in American history, Kentucky’s senior senator saw he would lose control of the Senate; fled the chamber under attack from a mob incited by a president whom he had enabled, but who probably cost him that control; and gave a speech concluding their political divorce.

Mitch McConnell’s remarks, which you should read, might have been the big news of the day if not for the violent invasion of the Capitol by supporters of President Trump – who had spent two months convincing them of the lies that his re-election was stolen from him, and that they could reverse the result as Congress counted electoral votes.

McConnell had tolerated five additional weeks of Trump’s attacks on the truth, in hopes of securing his help in Georgia, where Republicans needed to keep at least one Senate seat to maintain control. But once the Electoral College voted Dec. 14, McConnell had little choice but to accept the truth of Joe Biden’s victory.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

That was the beginning of the divorce, at least in public. Earlier, while saying Trump had a right to fight in the courts, McConnell may also have made sure no one in the Kentucky delegation joined the baseless Texas lawsuit to throw out votes of states key to Biden’s win.

The same day McConnell called Biden president-elect, he and other Senate leaders urged their Republican colleagues not to join some House Republicans’ plans to throw out the electoral votes of states critical to Biden’s victory. That was, in effect, the majority leader’s declaration of war against Trump in a battle for upper hand in the Republican Party – and McConnell’s effort to keep the GOP caucus from splitting into Trump and anti-Trump factions.

Trump campaigned for the Georgia senators, but as usual talked more about himself and his complaints about the election process in the state, which he had lost. The mixed messages probably kept Sen. David Perdue from keeping his seat and Republicans from keeping their Senate majority.

That probably suited Trump just fine. That’s what “a Republican close to the White House” told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman: “Trump told people he is really angry that the senators and McConnell hadn’t stood up for him to challenge the election. He’s happy they lost.”

This is not just Trump’s crazed ego at work; it’s practical politics. With Democrats running both houses of Congress and the White House, and Trump holding a campaign fund of $250 million or more, he hopes to be the big dog of American politics.

But he barked too much Wednesday. The insurrection he incited made most Republican senators back off their electoral-vote objections, speeding the count and strengthening McConnell’s hand against the Trump faction.

The silver lining of that dark day is this: It showed Americans why Trump is a dangerous demagogue unfit for office, and now Republican leaders have an opportunity to do something that a divided country badly needs: persuade their followers that Trump lied to them, and that the election was legitimate. As Sen. Mitt Romney said, “The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”

McConnell started that process with his speech that opened the Senate’s session to consider the first objection.

“Nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale that would have tipped this entire election,” he said. “Nor can public doubt alone justify a radical break when that doubt was incited without evidence.”

He didn’t name Trump in that line, or blame him for the riot in the speech he made when the Senate reconvened afterward. And he made a gratuitous slap at “the media” for “aiding and abetting Democrats’ attacks on institutions.” But more importantly, he said this:

“Self-government requires a shared commitment to truth and shared respect for the ground rules of our system. We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with separate facts, and separate realities, with nothing in common except hostility toward each another and mistrust for the few national institutions that we still share.”

Right. But those “separate facts” and realities are largely the products of an agenda-driven media machine that capitalized on the liberal leaning of more responsible news media and further polarized the country, and of a social-media environment that devalued journalism and left millions of Americans in tribal echo chambers.

Mitch McConnell benefited greatly from the new media environment, and he tolerated, normalized and excused a president who shattered many of the norms that make our republic work, the worst example being a sham impeachment trial with no witnesses. As Trump’s rioters came up the steps of the Capitol, McConnell started to make up for it. May he continue that work, and heal the breach.

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  1. J. Landon Overfield says:

    Mr. Cross, you have been more than kind to McConnell. For four years he has enabled a President who acted (wittingly or unwittingly) to divide America and destroy its democratic institutions. Even after the Electoral College voted Dec. 14, 2020, he persisted in coddling Trump. You write: “As Trump’s rioters came up the steps of the Capitol, McConnell started to make up for it. May he continue that work, and heal the breach.” Too late. Trump has done almost irreparable damage to America and Mitch McConnell (along with people he controls in and out of DC) was complicit. Much of what has happened is his fault. That he now sees the tide of America’s thought process turn squarely against what has happened over the last four years does not, in my opinion, absolve him of his guilt in the damaging of America. McConnell hopes now to distance himself from Trump only for self perseveration. Damn him and all he stands for.

  2. Tom Oetinger says:

    Senator McConnell has assured his legacy in the Senate annals as a senator of complete self-service. His legacy includes not one piece of meaningful legislation (I don’t count the 2017 tax act that shoveled billions into the pockets of his supporters or the court-packing of unqualified ultra conservative judges). His eight years of his racially-motivated blocking of the Obama agenda, his four years of tap dancing around Donald Trump’s dystopian “presidency” and his single-handed twisting the laws of the land to avoid seating a perfectly qualified Supreme Court justice (Merrick Garland) can never be even remotely offset by the tepid remarks he has made in the few short days since the Trump presidency has imploded. That he has lost control of the Senate is the sweetest outcome for the vast majority of the American public who detest Mr. McConnell, the money he has brought to American democracy, and the extreme divide HE has facilitated into our nation’s conversation. I’m sure that he has plenty of tricks left in his bag to do his best to undermine President-elect Biden as minority leader, but for a man who once said he wanted to be remembered as a modern-day Henry Clay, I say fat chance. As historians look back on his time in government they will say Mitch was all about Mitch, power, and money. Good riddance.

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