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Bill Straub: Never popular with Democrats, McConnell now facing critics from the right as well

WASHINGTON – Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root ‘n Branch’’ McConnell, who has contributed more to the noxious political divide that plagues the nation than any other individual over the past decade, has serendipitously developed a way to unite Democrats and the GOP’s whacko right wing.

They both want him gone.

Republicans are becoming increasingly agitated with McConnell, of Louisville, who, it can be fairly said, has promised more than he can deliver as the upper chamber’s majority leader. His failure to repeal Obamacare, an embarrassment of epic proportions, produced some muffled grumblings – Rep. Mo Brooks, R-AL, seeking the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said he wouldn’t support him for GOP leader — but no immediate hint of insurrection.

Now, however, bad feelings aimed at ol’ Root ‘n Branch, festering behind the scenes, are rising to the surface and conservative idols like Sean Hannity, the stupidest man on talk radio – and that’s saying a mouthful – are seeking his ouster.

“YOU are a WEAK, SPINELESS leader who does not keep his word and you need to Retire!” Hannity said in a tweet posted Wednesday.

The list of similar criticisms is growing and now, of course, our crazy master of the twitter world, President Donald J. Trump, is weighing in, taking time from drumming up war with North Korea to ask, “After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?’’ .

Senate Democrats have never much cared for McConnell. As Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, cogently noted, McConnell has dismissed all the norms that guided the Senate for decades, creating a culture where there are “no rules, there’s no customs, there’s no standards. And whatever you can get away with is what you can get away with.’’

That distaste from the other side of the aisle generally has kept McConnell in good stead with the Republican base even though he has occasionally found himself at odds with Senate conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI. In the past he has butted heads with the Tea Party (remember them?) and he hasn’t been shy about opposing GOP primary candidates who roll so far to the right that the fall off the map – he’s actively supporting Sen. Luther Strange, R-AL, against Brooks and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, a nut of the first order, in that special election.

But a faltering legislative agenda with few successes to show despite Republican hegemony in the White House and Congress is starting to bring out the long knives. That and his apparent uneasy relationship with Trump.

Immediately after Obamacare repeal, Trump, with all the guile of a golden retriever puppy, yipped that McConnell needs to continue pressing ahead with health care reform and, as an extra added attraction, kill the filibuster so Republicans can motivate like Sherman’s march to the sea.

“Unless the Republican senators are total quitters, Repeal & Replace is not dead!’’ Trump exclaimed in one tweet. “Demand another vote before voting on any other bill!’’

On the filibuster he subsequently added, “Mitch M go to 51 votes NOW and WIN. IT’S TIME!’’

The commander in chief, that legislative whiz, apparently failed to comprehend that the filibuster played no role in the Obamacare debate – repeal couldn’t garner 50 votes and was brought to the floor under rules where it didn’t apply.

Regardless, like Animal House’s John Blutarsky asserting that America didn’t quit when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, he was on a roll.

McConnell’s response to this was actually quite bland given the fact that Trump was elbowing his way into his territory. Appearing before the Florence Rotary Club this week, ol’ Root ‘n Branch gently suggested that the 70-year-old child serving as president of the United States simply was unfamiliar with the process.

“Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before,’’ McConnell said. “And I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process. So part of the reason I think people feel we’re underperforming is because too many artificial deadlines — unrelated to the reality of the complexity of legislating — may not have been fully understood.”

Not exactly Thomas a’ Beckett standing up to Henry II but the mild statement sure raised the dander of those on the right.

The week has made it apparent that McConnell has lost Fox News, a key figure in the conservative firmament. There was Hannity, a full-blown Trump sycophant. Ed Rollins, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s political director, appearing on Lou Dobbs Tonight on the Fox Business Network, called McConnell’s comments “pretty outrageous.’’

The week has made it apparent that McConnell has lost Fox News, a key figure in the conservative firmament. There was Hannity, a full-blown Trump sycophant. Ed Rollins, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s political director, appearing on Lou Dobbs Tonight on the Fox Business Network, called McConnell’s comments “pretty outrageous.”

“The standards being set there are his standards, his legislative standards,’’ Rollins said. “The bottom line, every year Congress is supposed to pass the fiscal budget, it’s due Oct. 1, they are nowhere near doing that. They have to raise the debt ceiling every year. They’re nowhere near to doing that. They’ve talked about tax reform for a period of time and they’re nowhere near doing that. And Obamcare is a promise he and his fellow members made for seven years.”

“He was a fairly good defensive person stopping things,’’ Rollins said. “He certainly isn’t very good on the offense,’’ adding dramatically, “it’s time for a change.’’

Dobbs, the host, was more critical, maintaining that McConnell “isn’t worth a doggone as far as I can see,’’ calling his statement “nonsense. He went so far as to start a “Ditch Mitch’’ campaign.

“He’s tired,’’ Dobbs said. “He’s absolutely delusional. He’s sold out for so long to the establishment.’’

And Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox & Friends, called McConnell an “embarrassment.’’

Then, of course, the White House got involved. Rather than rush to the defense of the party’s Senate leader, the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue piled on. Dan Scarvino, the president’s director of social media, asserted in a tweet that McConnell is just making “more excuses.’’
The Kentuckian, he said, “must have needed another 4 years — in addition to the 7 years — to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

And, of course, the piece de resistance comes from the presidential pretender himself.

“Senator Mitch McConnell said I had “excessive expectations,” but I don’t think so,’’ he said in a tweet. “After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?’’

This all makes for a muddled political scene. Three quick takeaways:

• McConnell is going nowhere. Frankly, no one else wants the job and he will hold on to it until his last breath. It is often said that, among his Republican colleagues, ol’ Root ‘n Branch is respected but not loved. They admire his political instincts – although they have failed him of late – and are willing to follow him like lemmings at least for the near term. So don’t anticipate a challenge.

• Trump is misplaying his hand, which should come as no surprise. Simply stated, Trump needs McConnell more than McConnell needs Trump. The president, who one could say is a disaster in the making had the cake not already been baked, carries little influence with a Congress that makes the laws and passes the budget. If Trump has an outside chance of pushing his agenda through – and that’s a fading possibility at best – he needs to work through McConnell. And all this won’t make him more endearing to the famously taciturn lawmaker.

• While McConnell faces no immediate political danger there is always 2020 when he is expected to run for re-election at the ripe old age of 78. If he is abandoned by conservatives, and many seem to be jumping ship, he could face a serious primary challenge. It’s pretty obvious that St. Matt the Divine, the prophet from New Hampshire currently serving as the commonwealth’s 62nd governor, could find himself term limited after a successful 2019 re-election campaign. He could get the itch to move on – he challenged McConnell once before in the 2014 GOP primary and there’s no real reason to think it’s all behind them.

Or, if Trump folds his tent, St. Matt could decide to run for president. To quote Chester A. Riley, “what a revoltin’ development this is!’’


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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