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Bill Straub: Leadership AWOL, ghost of Lincoln looms, future of Republican Party hangs in balance

Reports about the impending death of the Republican Party are, as Twain once remarked about his own alleged demise, an exaggeration. But make no mistake, a reckoning is in the offing, the outcome of which will ultimately carry huge consequences.

On one side you have former President Donald J. Trump who has been eerily quiet since Twitter saw fit to kill his lie-prone account. But he remains inordinately popular with the folks he lovingly calls his base – White men who frequently voice questionable political convictions based on data they create out of thin air. For lack of a better term, these folks are identified as conservative populists.

On the other side are those who express the more traditional GOP views, gathering around the concept of small government, low taxes, a loathing of deficits, a business agenda and a blurred line between church and state. The current champion for that cause, for better or worse, is our old pal Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, whose official position currently makes him the party’s highest ranking elected official.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

Frankly, it’s not sizing up as a fair fight. Despite becoming the second incumbent Republican president who failed to win re-election in the last 28 years, Trump somehow managed to amass more than 74 million votes in 2020. That ain’t hay. In fact, it is the second highest vote total in the nation’s history, second only to the 81 million garnered by the Democrat who beat him like a rug, President Joe Biden. And his supporters have shown they’re willing to crawl through broken glass in his behalf.

McConnell, on the other hand, is damaged goods, at least when it comes to spearheading a return to traditional GOP values. It was Mitch, after all, who paved the way for Trump to become the political monstrosity that he is, refusing to use his position and influence to rein in some of the former president’s most egregious missteps and then failing to weigh in on one Trumpian disaster after another.

It was McConnell who took a dive in the first impeachment trial brought against Trump, refusing to elicit testimony and basically twiddling his thumbs until the process reached it’s pre-ordained no conviction conclusion.

When real leadership was called for, Mitch was AWOL.Trump is, to a certain extent, a Mitch McConnell production.

So you think he’s the man to return the party to its glory days?
Only recently, within the last month, has McConnell seen fit to pronounce that, perhaps, the king has no clothes. It took an achingly long time for him to declare that, you know, maybe Joe Biden really did win this election after all. Whoda thunk it?

And he condemned Trump’s statements at a Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6 when the soon-to-be ex-prez urged his followers to march to the Capitol to implore lawmakers to reject the Electoral College results, thus clearing the path for him to declare victory. The horde stormed what serves as the center of American government, desecrated the property, created chaos and threatened members of Congress. Five people died in the assault, including a Capitol Police officer.

That whole, sordid affair led, of course, to Trump’s second impeachment, with the Senate trial pending. McConnell, in an unusual turn, stated on the Senate floor that “the mob was fed lies’’ and that their actions were “provoked’’ by Trump and others.

McConnell initially hinted, through intermediaries, that he might very well vote to convict. More recently he appears to have gotten cold feet. He voted for a resolution sponsored by his Kentucky partner, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, questioning the constitutionality of impeaching an ex-president. It’s an easy out if he opts to take it, but it would do nothing to wrestle the hearts and minds of Republicans away from Trumpism.

It’s worth noting here that, even if you are diametrically opposes to the Republican Party’s precepts, it offers a valuable service that can’t be easily replaced by its demise. There’s nothing evil or even suspect about a small, low-tax, anti-regulation government. It’s at least a political theory worth hearing and its proponents occasionally come up with a good idea. If nothing else it offers a leash to the oftentimes overenthusiastic endeavors on the liberal/Democratic side.

That balancing is necessary to keep the American democracy afloat.

But the New Republican Party has become one of pessimism, sneering derision and purveyor of outlandish conspiracy theories, evidence of the influence of QAnon, which Trump seemingly has embraced. It’s easy to blame Trump for the deterioration of the Republican Party but the journey from Dwight Eisenhower to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-GA, the newest member of the House Kook Caucus, started long before he hopped on the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy.

President Ronald Reagan, for instance, didn’t provide the unbending hatred associated with the New Republicanism, just the opposite. But it was Reagan who preached disdain for government. From there it was a short hop to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-GA, who sought to beatify Reagan but fomented the sort of scorched earth politics that take precedence today.

Trump is a natural culmination of the direction the Republican Party has blazed. Like Reagan he uprooted Americans’ trust in their government, though without the Dutchman’s mask of amiability, likening it to a swamp that needed draining. He adopted tactics of Gingrich, spreading discord and portraying his foes and critics as enemies of the state. To this he added a dash of racism, a pinch of misogyny and a whole bucketful of the fear of the foreign born.

It is not a healthy mixture and raises question regarding how a Trump-led Republican Party can expand sufficiently to retain influence. There are plenty of right-wing White guys to keep it afloat for a while, but they’re an ebbing percentage of the population. It’s not an inviting place for African-Americans, Latinos or Asians. An estimated 57 percent of women cast their ballots for Biden.

McConnell is not the man to turn the tide. It will take political courage, which Mitch maintains in short supply. And even if he goes the limit, Trump already is hinting at creation of a third party, which he reportedly calls the Patriot Party, to offer as an alternative, radically splitting the GOP and placing Democrats in the catbird seat.

McConnell, as usual, is close-mouthed about his intentions. The tell will be how he votes on impeachment. If he decides against conviction, Trump is on a glide path toward converting the Republican Party into the Trump Party, and the ghost of Lincoln will quickly fade away.

Smart money is McConnell doesn’t have the guts to vote for conviction, thus removing any chance he has of pulling the GOP away from the precipice. His only hope after that is the Justice Department and the Southern District of New York, who might make it difficult for Trump to campaign four years hence from Leavenworth.

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