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Bill Straub: Taking bets on McConnell’s choice of doing what’s best for (1) the nation or (2) his party?

WASHINGTON – Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell is facing a dilemma.

McConnell, of Louisville, has, on numerous occasions, been justifiably criticized for placing the priorities of his Republican Party ahead of the nation’s welfare. It was, after all, ol’ Root-‘n-Branch who vowed rigid non-cooperation with anything President Barack Obama, a Democrat and the first African-American to hold the office, sought to accomplish and then bragged about it. He essentially blocked Obama’s efforts to advise the nation regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Republican Donald J. Trump, now “President” Trump (please lord no), and he absolutely refused to even consider the nomination of U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland for a seat on the Supreme Court.

Those are just the lowlights chronicling McConnell’s well-documented deviousness. For all this he has somehow gained a reputation as something of a political Rasputin, a master of the Senate, rather than as someone constantly working to the detriment of the nation he is sworn to protect. So it goes.

Brett Kavanaugh

But now old Mitch has been handed the hottest of potatoes. And how he manages the situation will either add another passage to the growing indictment marking him as one of the worst majority leaders in history or one who suddenly and unexpectedly rose to the occasion, albeit kicking and screaming.

It was Churchill who said you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

Trump, an incontrovertible pox on the body politic, has nominated U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bret Kavanaugh to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Kavanaugh, in his writings and decisions, has proved to be the youngish – he’s 53 – true blue, right-wing poster boy of McConnell’s dreams. Joining another Trump nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh is expected to lead a conservative revolution on the court that could endure for decades, perhaps overturning any number of progressive court decisions, the most prominent being Roe v. Wade, which assured a woman’s right to make her own medical decision on whether or not to undergo an abortion.

And, frankly, taking advantage of the opportunity to stuff the highest court in the land is the way the game is played. Democrats have been asleep at the switch for what seems like eons when it comes to federal court appointments. Progressives are paying the cost of their negligence and its Trump and McConnell handing them the bill.

Say what you want about Trump’s court picks. Ultimately a great deal of the fault lies with the Democratic Party’s inability to energize its adherents on this critical issue.

But McConnell and the Republicans are now facing a problem. Kavanaugh, as it turns out, emerged as a lousy nominee. He didn’t exactly sparkle at his confirmation hearing, dodging simple questions and running around Robin Hood’s barn to avoid offering anything specific. What’s more there were flags raised over some financial transactions and whether he lied during his previous confirmation hearing for the circuit court slot before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006.

Regardless, ol’ Root-‘n-Branch and the GOP, who maintain a slim majority in the upper chamber, were rushing to push the nomination through like the Orange Blossom Special rolling down the tracks.

Then came Christine Blasey Ford.

After a series of starts and stops, Ford came forward to declare that Kavanaugh, during his high school days in 1982, when he was 17 and she was 15, sexually assaulted her at a party by pushing her into a bedroom and attempting to remove her one-piece bathing suit. Kavanaugh, she said, placed his hand over her mouth to stifle a scream.

Details are fuzzy. Ford couldn’t say where or when the assault occurred and she never reported the incident to authorities. But there are bits of corroborating evidence and she is insisting on a full-scale FBI investigation into the claim before she agrees to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has delayed a confirmation vote before the mess can be straightened out.

Kavanaugh has categorically denied having anything to do with Ford, although some supporters are floating the idea that the two were simply engaged in “rough horseplay.”

McConnell and Kavanaugh

This constitutes a minefield for McConnell. The #Me Too movement, which has brought the tragedy of sexual assault to the forefront, has heightened sensitivity on the issue, forcing politicians, Democrats, and Republicans alike, to pay appropriate heed to claims entered by women about being attacked or face the consequences. Majority Republicans can’t, as they have in the past, ignore pleas from women like Ford.

It’s also a big PR problem for the GOP. Trump has already been exposed as a misogynist, with several women coming forward with sexual assault claims and the president himself caught on tape bragging about grabbing various women’s private areas. There’s also Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative nominated by former Republican President George Bush in 1991, who was famously accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.

Adding to the roster could prove untenable. Polls establish women are turning their backs on Republicans as the Nov. 6 midterm elections approach. White women, who astonishingly gave Trump 52 percent of their vote two years ago, look to be packing it in, already causing the GOP significant concern.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had hoped to calm the waters by simply taking testimony from both Ford and Kavanaugh on the issue and then, most likely, washing his hands of the entire affair and sending Kavanaugh’s nomination to the chamber’s floor.

But Ford balked, demanding that the FBI instigate a probe into her claims, thus providing committee members with the information they need to perform an appropriate inquiry. The gambit – leading the bureau to peruse her background and her claim – certainly establishes she is serious and has nothing to hide.

All of which places the ball in McConnell’s court. Right now, Grassley is sticking to his plan to hold a hearing with Ford and Kavanaugh on Monday, demanding that Ford send him documents by the end of the week in order to testify. Ford and her attorneys have yet to comply.

That might not prove sufficient. Some voters, particularly those sensitive to the growing #MeToo movement, may consider GOP actions as dismissive. Any committee refusal to gear up an FBI background probe likely will be taken as a sign that Republicans failed to take Ford seriously. Those thoughts will stick with them through Nov. 6.

And there’s another issue. What happens if McConnell, the supreme strategist, manages to railroad Kavanaugh through, gets him up on the bench, and then confronts information corroborating Ford’s version of events, confirming that the new justice did, indeed, engage in sexual assault?

What’s ol’ Mitch gonna do? Throw up his hands, chuckle, say “Whoops. Sorry. Better luck next time?’’

That’s not going to fly. If the Republican Party is in a vulnerable position now, think what public opinion will be if the GOP frivolously plunks a sexual predator onto the highest court in the land.

But it appears McConnell’s tunnel vision is so severe that he is determined to get Kavanaugh into those robes rather than think the situation through. He wants Kavanaugh in before the election and it appears nothing will dissuade him.

We’ll collectively see if McConnell passes the test. Will he slow things up and give the admittedly grievous situation the attention it’s due, or will he once again place the desires of the Republican Party ahead of the nation’s welfare?

Smart money’s on the latter.

KyForward’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.

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