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Al Cross: Mitch McConnell never evolved so quickly, and then in reverse

The 50-year political career of Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. is a study in evolution

When he was running for and serving as Jefferson County judge-executive, he was a moderate – which he had to be, in order to be elected as a Republican in an increasingly Democratic county soon after Richard Nixon sullied the brand of the Grand Old Party. He even made moderates, liberals and organized labor think he would support a woman’s right to an abortion and government employees’ right to collective bargaining.

When he first ran for the U.S. Senate, McConnell had no primary opposition and easily positioned himself not too far right of incumbent Dee Huddleston, putting the focus on his complacent opponent’s foibles with clever TV ads and showing a will to win that made the difference – along with Ronald Reagan’s coattails.

Soon after becoming a senator, McConnell sided with Democrats and against the majority of his party to support sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime, and was soon proven to be on the right side of history. But history is a river with many currents, and as he pursued his ambition to run the Senate, he went with the flow, becoming more conservative as his party became more conservative.

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.

It was less about ideology than about gaining and keeping power. That’s what made dealing with Donald Trump, whom McConnell clearly found personally distasteful, so delicious for him politically as Senate majority leader.

Trump has no ideology and is driven by his ego, and he had little interest in the details of governing, so McConnell had a president who would sign Republicans’ bills without much trouble. And he caused Trump little trouble, keeping largely mum about the volatile president’s outrages, which helped McConnell coast to re-election in strongly pro-Trump Kentucky last year.

But Trump was not re-elected, and the guess here is that McConnell was glad to be rid of him – until Trump cost Republicans their Senate majority, and McConnell most of his power, with baseless claims about election fraud in Georgia that helped Democrats win two Senate seats in runoff elections on Jan. 5.

The next day, a mob stoked by Trump’s lies and rhetoric stormed the Capitol and continued the fastest evolution in Mitch McConnell’s career.

He had already ceased to be Trump’s enabler, declaring Joe Biden the winner the day after the Electoral College voted. But he and most of his colleagues had remained mum for more than a month, hoping to secure Trump’s help in Georgia, and that allowed Trump’s lies about election fraud to take deeper root among Republicans.

Not long before the mob made him flee the Senate chamber, McConnell declared that the president had no evidence that would warrant throwing out electoral votes, and issued a valuable warning, but one that his five-week silence made ring a bit hollow: “We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes; with separate facts, and separate realities.”

He was talking about Trump, and he stated it more bluntly on Jan. 19: “This mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.” That echoed the charge of Trump’s second impeachment, that he had incited the insurrection, and McConnell had said earlier that he had an open mind about convicting Trump.

It looked like McConnell’s greatest remake, from Trump’s essential ally to chief enemy. But it didn’t take. Public polls had shown that most people in McConnell’s party still believed the election was stolen, and few of them blamed Trump for the riot.

McConnell’s private polls surely showed likewise, and a week later, at Senate Republicans’ weekly lunch, he hosted Chicago law professor Jonathan Turley, who argued that a president can’t be impeached and tried after leaving office. Later that day, McConnell voted with all but five other Republican senators against a motion to kill Sen. Rand Paul’s resolution declaring the trial unconstitutional. So much for any chance of the two-thirds vote needed to convict.

Turley’s argument is the easy way out for Republicans who dislike Trump but don’t want to confront him. Impeached former officials have been tried before, and that’s probably one reason convicted officials can be disqualified from office. Republicans’ real reasons are not legal, but political; that’s why Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine couldn’t get enough Republican support to move forward with a resolution censuring Trump.

McConnell has additional reasons; it would be bad internal politics for him to be on a different page with most of his members on a question so fundamental as the fate of Donald J. Trump. So his evolution reversed, quickly.

But what about the fate of the Republican Party? McConnell showed he still cares about that, when he denounced the “loony lies” of freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and stood up for Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., whose vote to impeach Trump put her House leadership post at risk. She survived, but the 145-61 vote was a secret ballot; a public vote would have been much closer. Fear of Trump is greatest in the House, where all members are up for re-election.

Republicans are stewing in the juice they allowed Trump and others to make: his 30,000 falsehoods and misleading claims during his presidency, made believable by Fox News and the echo chambers of social media, which also drove the mob. McConnell called them out Jan. 19, but that was much too late. Now Fox talkers have turned on him; Tucker Carlson called him “a foolish old fraud.”

Actually, it’s Carlson and his ilk who are the frauds, misleading millions. And that has implications beyond the fate of Trump and the Republican Party; a democracy cannot function properly without a shared set of facts, as McConnell said Jan. 6. That’s a principle that transcends ideology and politics, so he needs to keep stating it.

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  1. Laura Roberts says:

    Always like to read Al Cross

  2. Laura Roberts says:

    Always like to read Al Cross’s columns

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