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Bill Straub: McConnell, Trump appear headed for a showdown — and it could come sooner than later

WASHINGTON – If you are among those who felt the nuptial of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was something of a mismatch, wait until you get a load of the deteriorating relationship between President Trump and Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root ‘n Branch’’ McConnell.

These two star-crossed Republicans appear destined for a showdown and it could come sooner rather than later, further muddling an agenda already lost in the political ozone. While the GOP controls both legislative chambers and the White House – not to mention a slim majority on the U.S. Supreme Court – it has proved unable to get anything done. The blame game is underway.

Trump and McConnell, who favored fellow Kentuckian, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, over the prez in the 2016 Republican primary, were never a good fit.

Trump, as has become obvious, is an incorrigible child playing at being president, given to tantrums, bullying and various horrors that disgrace the nation. McConnell is not as brazen, in fact he is the anti-brazen when compared to Trump. But, like the president, he rates his abilities quite highly. He is also amoral, possesses no real core beliefs and has displayed an unsettling determination to place his own interests ahead of the nation’s welfare.

As has been said about other politicos in the past, the more you hear from one, the more you prefer the other.

The first eight months of the Trump administration have been, in a word, brutal. McConnell, despite promises to repeal Obamacare “root and branch,’’ making it sound like the effort would prove easier than a walk in the park, has proved unable to get the job done. He has offered four different ways to dump the healthcare law – all of them inferior to Obamacare – and they have all flopped.

That botched endeavor has taken up a substantial amount of precious legislative time and a look at the scoreboard displays a bunch of goose eggs for the grand old party. That has not pleased the child/bully president who displays no acumen for healthcare policy or anything else for that matter, leading to the anticipated explosion of bile and tweets, most aimed at McConnell.

At one juncture Trump went so far as to say if Ol’ Root ‘n Branch couldn’t get the job done, Republicans in the Senate might want to consider finding someone who can.

Then there was the special election in Alabama this week to select a Republican candidate to fill the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pitting Sen. Luther Strange, a temporary appointee, against former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was kicked off the bench twice for refusing to recognize rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Moore in effect wants to turn these United States of America into the Israel of Christianity. He’s a nut. So of course he carried Republicans in the Cotton State with 56 percent of the vote.

Trump, at McConnell’s urging, backed Strange in the race, even though it seemed obvious that the president’s constituency was more attuned to Moore and his soft spot for white Christians than Strange. Trump was displeased with the outcome, feeling he had been duped and, once again, Ol’ Root ‘n Branch is in the crosshairs.

So it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the shotgun marriage between McConnell and Trump is on the rocks and one of them has to file the divorce papers.

The president, of course, is gearing up to make McConnell the fall guy, telling a group of conservatives gathered at the White House this week that he finds the majority leader “weak,’’ proceeding thereafter to mock the Louisvillian’s stoop-shouldered gait – a particularly nasty and black-hearted bit of business given that McConnell rather famously suffered from polio as a child.

Since the Strange electoral trouncing and the final nail being pounded in the Obamacare repeal coffin, Trump has been unusually tepid in his twitter posts, saving his best material to demean black people, to the delight of many of his supporters. But there’s general agreement that the eruption is coming and McConnell is in grave danger of being overtaken by the lava flow.

McConnell, who was always overrated as a master tactician and legislative genius, finds himself in a more perilous position. He doesn’t have a podium near the size of Trump’s to pound. He is likely the nation’s most unpopular political figure – a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week showed that a paltry 11 percent of those questioned approve of his job performance.

Even among Republicans, 25 percent have a negative impression while 17 percent went positive.

Charisma has never been McConnell’s stock-in-trade. If it were he would have been defeated long ago. So he can’t call on that. GOP candidates are starting to use him as a scarecrow – Moore made it clear he would not support him as Republican leader and Strange strangely enough (sorry, couldn’t resist) told a supporters gathered at a rally featuring Trump that he was the man to “stand up’’ to McConnell, even though Ol’ Root ‘n Branch’s political action committees funneled about $9 million in Strange’s ultimately futile direction.

And, frankly, McConnell is not all that popular with a large percentage of his caucus. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, called him a liar on the Senate floor. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, accused him of duplicity in rounding up votes for the first Obamacare repeal catastrophe. Relations between Ol’ Root ‘n Branch and Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, have long been strained dating back to the fight over campaign finance reform. McCain has gained a certain amount of satisfaction in recent months essentially killing McConnell’s Obamacare repeal aspirations. Now it appears Moore is about to join that growing clique.

McConnell, who was always overrated as a master tactician and legislative genius, finds himself in a more perilous position. He doesn’t have a podium near the size of Trump’s to pound. He is likely the nation’s most unpopular political figure

And there is the inescapable fact that McConnell has, thus far, failed as majority leader. A tremendous amount of time has been spent on Obamacare repeal to no avail. His decisions along the way – have 13 old white guys in the chamber produce a plan, rush it to the floor without committee consideration and limit debate – proved disastrous and unworthy of a guy who considers himself the new Henry Clay.

He has not, as promised, returned to regular order in the budget-making process, leading Trump to cut an extraordinary deal with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, to raise the debt ceiling and extend the federal spending plan for three months into the new fiscal year. It’s now obvious, and should have been earlier, that Trump finds it easier to deal with Schumer as a result of their shared New York City background, than McConnell. That results in additional problems.

Every time McConnell is reminded if he were a Broadway show he would have closed opening night, he repeats his mantra – Justice Neil Gorsuch, expressing great pride in cheating and stealing to get his man on the U.S. Supreme Court over a more qualified candidate, Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington DC, nominated by then-President Barack Obama. But Republicans, while they appreciate the diabolical steps Ol’ Root ‘n Branch finagled, are now taking a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately stand, and the majority leader is coming up empty.

McConnell still has several routes at his disposal to salvage his thus far godawful tenure. He can do what he has been reluctant to do – openly break with Trump, retain the support and confidence of his caucus and proceed to get the nation’s work done outside of the president’s sphere of influence.

Or he can kowtow to the bully and take on the part of The Fool in King Lear, allow Trump to dominate him just so he can maintain the only political position he ever coveted – Senate Republican leader.

Neither of those options is especially appetizing, although the former has its good points. McConnell might even reach across the aisle to Democrats for help in certain situations, god forbid. What he’s doing now, attempting to placate a bullying president who’s getting in the way, isn’t working and there’s no reason to believe it ever will.

Ol’ Root ‘n Branch could resign as majority leader based on principles, which is probably the one funniest line I’ve written since undertaking this column.

Or, finally, perhaps the most likely option, McConnell can hang around until the impeachment, and then work his magic under President Mike Pence.


Washington correspondent 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.

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