Does Mitch McConnell Believe in Anything? And Will He Save the Nation? (Probably not)

For all the chaos of the Trump campaign, Paul Ryan’s role in the election seemed to move along a set pattern. Every few weeks, when Trump said something particularly egregious, Ryan would dutifully trudge to a nearby podium and deliver an acceptably stern rebuttal to whatever the careening GOP candidate had said. Then, as the controversy was washed away in the next news cycle, Ryan would retire his faux-outrage and pragmatically announce that Trump, despite occasional threats to life, liberty, and happiness, was more likely to sign Republican bills and thus maintained Ryan’s not-so-easily lost support. What is, after all, a Constitution or democratic norms when they are held before the glory of Ryan’s vision of a pre-tax adjustment to the Medicare quarterly interest rate? (Note: This is a made-up name for a tax cut for wealthy people.)

If one can give Ryan any credit, it’s for at least emerging here and there to make a temporary statement of disapproval. Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, passed through the election as the ghost of a rumored shadow. When the media procured a tape of Trump bragging about his apparent enthusiasm for sexual assault, McConnell boldly proclaimed “I don’t have any observations to make.” Having consigned such rhetoric to the history books, McConnell remained as scarce as possible for much of the race.

Before election night, McConnell’s non-observations and half-nod of support seemed likely to be forgotten, but then Trump claimed victory and made McConnell a curious central figure in the new political order. Obviously, as a Republican, McConnell will be plenty happy to send tax cuts and program-guttings to Trump for signatory approval. However, Trump has long cast himself as a strong leader and anti-establishment figure, and Steve Bannon, a longtime critic of traditional Republicans, has already emerged as a major power in the White House. Despite their shared party, McConnell, as a six-term Senate institutionalist, could easily find himself in opposition to the White House.

One complicating factor in assessing McConnell’s potential role in the coming political drama is that it’s not entirely certain what he actually believes in. As detailed in Alec MacGillis’ short but highly informative 2014 book on McConnell, The Cynic, the aspect of his career that McConnell seems proudest of is the many elections he’s won. The legislation he’s passed and supported along the way is a barely visible part of the story.

Also, although any contemporary observer would consider him a conservative Republican, he’s made something of an ideological journey over the years. In 1963, while still in college, he wrote a column urging the Republican Party to embrace civil rights legislation and later interned for a Senator who helped pass it. He named his cat Rocky in honor of Nelson Rockefeller, the moderate Republican governor of New York who had furiously opposed conservative icon Barry Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention. After he became a county executive in the Louisville area in 1978, advocates  credited him for effectively blocking local challenges to Roe v. Wade and considered him to be pro-choice. And finally, he declined to support Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1976, and actually listed Reagan as his fourth choice in the 1980 election. It’s impossible to survey McConnell’s pre-Senate career and conclude that he was anything but a moderate to liberal Republican, but then Mitch went to Washington.

McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984 by a margin of only 5,000 votes, and undoubtedly owed the win to the coattails of Ronald Reagan, who won the state by 238,000. The new Senator learned the lesson of that race all too well, and since then he has drifted along ideologically as his state and his party moved to the right. He’s now a reliably pro-life Republican, hardly an active voice on civil rights, pays tribute to Reagan whenever humanly possible, and has even disavowed his ideologically moderate cat Rocky (His staff now says that Rocky, feline RINO that he was, was his ex-wife’s cat).

Perhaps it’s fruitless to attempt to attempt to draw any clear ideology out of McConnell’s finger-in-the-wind approach to politics. An ideologically flexible politician is no particular novelty and he’s obviously made a tremendously successful career out of it. However, if McConnell prizes winning elections and maintaining his status as majority leader above all else, those goals are potentially threatened by an erratic and unpopular president.

Generally the upcoming midterms would be a concern here, but the Republican Senate majority is protected by a highly favorable slate of elections in 2018, as they only need to defend eight seats while the Democrats are defending 25. If Trump is historically unpopular that may open a window for the Democrats, but for now the GOP majority seems to be safe. Even if that is the case, however, there could be fractures between the White House and McConnell over individual races. Bannon fired an initial shot across the bow recently when he allegedly suggested that McConnell’s days picking Senate candidates were over, and also hinted that the White House may support a primary challenger to Trump critic Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

The 2020 elections, distant though they may seem, could be the bigger threat to McConnell given the favorable map for Democrats and the fact that he himself is up for election. More than three years out it is futile to attempt any prophecy regarding the 2020 cycle (particularly since the country now seems to change dramatically between Tuesday to Thursday) but McConnell is surely aware that there may be a political cost to aligning too closely with a hugely polarizing president who entered office as the least-popular president-elect in history. Approval ratings can always change, but given the intensity of opposition to Trump, it will be difficult for him to become a broadly popular leader.

While these electoral risks are surely a concern for McConnell, they are more long-term than immediate. In the short-term, he has a Senate majority, a Supreme Court nominee on the docket, and a president willing to sign Republican bills, so for now it’s hard to see McConnell breaking with the administration in any significant way. He may well mimic Ryan’s strategy of feigning principle when necessary but generally embracing a philosophy of pragmatic partisanship. Behind the scenes, the consternation of Republican donors might be a growing and more immediate concern for McConnell, as he has long been a prolific and enthusiastic fundraiser for the party. The Koch brothers have repeatedly spoken out against Trump and there was talk of widespread discomfort with Trump when they held their annual donor summit in January. There were also reports that their donor network intends to raise up to $400 million for the 2018 elections, which will surely draw the attention of McConnell and congressional Republicans.

Ultimately, whatever the cause, the calculating, ideologically-mysterious McConnell may emerge as an important foil to the Trump administration, even if he is an uninspiring bulwark for those worried that American democracy itself may be in danger. McConnell will go far to work with the administration, but given the far-right, authoritarian leanings of Trump and those around him, McConnell could find himself in a situation where his power and perhaps the Senate itself is threatened. It is also possible that, at 75 years old, McConnell might be thinking about his legacy and more willing to stand up to aggressive moves by the Bannon and Trump administration. Despite his partisanship and uncertain convictions, McConnell has always revered the Senate. A more inspiring defender of the country’s democratic institutions could surely be imaged, but for now the country might have to hope that the dour Kentucky leader discovers his higher principles.


The Political Path to Impeachment

Calls for impeachment are no great novelty in U.S. politics, but serious discussion of the possibility is usually confined to the remote wings of whatever party is out of power. In the infant Trump presidency, however, there is already widespread speculation over the possibility as the administration has been immersed in chaos and scandal since the start and whispers about Trump’s mental stability have become increasingly public. The general line of thinking is that Trump won’t be impeached so long as Republicans control Congress and that is likely true. No president has been removed from office by impeachment – Johnson and Clinton were acquitted by the Senate and Nixon resigned before being impeached – and it is obviously unlikely that this will change in an era of one-party rule. There is, however, a path to impeachment – a narrow one to be sure, but one that cannot be entirely written off.

Trump Hearts Scandal

Although Trump and his allies are surely outraged that impeachment is even being discussed, the impetus behind all the fevered speculation and sudden interest in the 25th Amendment is the actions of Trump himself. His campaign was perpetually mired in scandal and controversy, and Trump has been unable or unwilling to assume a more presidential demeanor after assuming office.

Barely a month into his term the administration has already been roiled by blockbuster revelations that the campaign was in touch with Russian intelligence officials throughout the campaign and lied about it up until it made the papers. Trump has also left himself exposed to charges of corruption with a barely serious effort to resolve the conflicts of interest from his sprawling real estate business. When you consider the deluge of leaks about the administration, this administration seems to have positioned itself better than any in recent memory for a massive and debilitating scandal.

GOP Congressional Majorities Are Probably Safe…Probably.

If Trump does crack open the impeachment door through his own penchant for scandal and ineptitude, there may be political incentives for the GOP to go down that path. Although Trump isn’t as wildly unpopular as many would like to believe (at least with Republican voters), he is remarkably disliked for a new president, and his chaotic and polarizing administration isn’t winning over many converts. The GOP has built itself a firewall of gerrymandered districts to protect its majority in the House, but their stranglehold on the House isn’t unbreakable. The Republicans are also blessed with a highly favorable Senate map in 2018, but once again it isn’t impossible to imagine scenarios where their majority is imperiled by a scandal-prone and incompetent president. A long-shot threat to the Republican congressional majorities is unlikely to drive any serious impeachment proceedings, but if Trump sinks further into the muck of scandal the political risks will surely factor into their calculations.

The Dream of President Pence

Another potential incentive for the GOP is vice president Pence. It’s become almost a cliché for well-sourced articles to note that, behind several closed doors and under a blanket, Congressional Republicans express deep discomfort with the ill-prepared and erratic president. To say that they would be more comfortable with a President Pence would be a massive understatement. Pence served six terms in the House, served as chairman of the Republican conference for two years (a stepping stone position held in the past by Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney and John Boehner), and left Washington to become governor of a conservative Midwestern state. The House GOP bromance with Pence won’t inspire impeachment hearings of course, but having one of their own waiting in the wings is another potential incentive.

Remember the Autopsy!

Another political calculation that could serve as a factor in any unprecedented impeachment proceedings is the very real possibility that the Trump presidency is wrecking the GOP brand. Although the party won a smashing victory on November 8th, there are reasons to believe that it may be short lived. While Trump claimed the 46th largest electoral college share in U.S. history, the GOP still lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six elections. The House majority is protected by elaborately-designed districts (the GOP got 49% of the total national vote in House elections but secured 55% of the seats), but these districts will be redrawn after the 2020 census, and in the meantime court challenges to tangled-yarn-shaped districts have made progress in Wisconsin and North Carolina. In the Senate, Trump’s unpopularity may check Republican’s ability to capitalize on the favorable 2018 Senate map, and the party has 22 seats to defend in the 2020 elections. Needless to say, a lot can change between now and tomorrow, but the GOP is a party with some obvious long-term challenges and a firm anchor to its base.

Any possibility that the Republicans will take down Trump in the name of the future viability is belied by recent history. The GOP has shown itself to be even more enthusiastic than the Democratic Party about shooting itself in the foot as a testament to ideological purity. In 2010 the Republicans virtually gave away the Senate majority by nominating a slate of lackluster candidates, including the man who introduced the term “legitimate rape” to our political lexicon and another candidate who ran an ad to address rumors that she had dabbled in witchcraft.

After Obama was reelected in 2012, the party commissioned an “autopsy” of the race to examine how the GOP could broaden its appeal. Virtually every aspect of  that report (immigration reform, minority outreach, don’t elect as many rich people) has been wholly and completely repudiated by the Trump campaign and administration. One author of the report even left the party.

Politics, of course, turns on short-term considerations and most Republican officials will cheerfully appease Trump so long as he is in power. However, it doesn’t take a political whiz to scroll through the demographic breakdowns of Trump’s approval ratings to see that see that he is underwater with moderates, every minority group, and young voters. The party cannot sustain its viability solely with conservative white voters born before 1970. This is a long-term calculation with little relevance to many well-protected Republican officeholders, but party officials will certainly notice the trends.

Incompetence Transcends Partisanship. Sort of. Maybe.

One thing several million people have realized lately is that Donald Trump does not seem prepared to be president. His administration has been erratic, prone to unforced errors, and continually mired in distracting controversies (inauguration crowds, Nordstrom…). “Professionalism” is not a word many people would use to describe the Trump administration. Republicans have tacitly acknowledged this at times. The safe way for Republicans to criticize the disastrous roll out of Trump’s travel ban was to say that it was not properly rolled out, which is an understated way of saying that it was an incredible disaster. If Trump and his administration continue to fumble through way through every attempt at policy, this could seriously undercut an idea that was central to Trump’s popularity, which is that he is no-nonsense boss who can “get things done.” Tens of millions of voters may believe in Trump regardless of what he does, but there are plenty of others who won’t abide massive incompetence.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, it seems trite to speak to any conception of national purpose that is not firmly established in one partisan camp and well-fortified with grievance and outrage, but if Trump demonstrates his inability to serve as a partisan warrior, perhaps Republicans will find time to consider the well-being of the country.


Warren @NetRoots

Elizabeth Warren’s Netroots speech got off to an interesting start, as she took to the stage to a predictable burst of adoration from the crowd of liberal activists. The political thing to do would be to take in the applause, offer a few thanks, and let the cheers build to a crescendo. Warren seemed to have no patience for the whole spectacle, particularly as the chants imploring her to seek higher office began to build. In a tone more befitting an admonishing college professor than a Senator with a national profile, Warren cut off the crowd, imploring everyone to sit down and, as the crowd settled, said “Let’s get started.”

Though Warren is a Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party who has generated quite a bit of national buzz, she hardly comes off as a politician in her speeches. She has a strong message that obviously resonates with the crowd, but the demeanor is less that of the politician seeking to sell a message than an advocate speaking for a cause. Although the depth of support for Warren’s non-existent presidential bid is generally overstated, her speech at Netroots provides a window into how and why she generates such enthusiasm.

The speech is laced with the values of progressive populism, repeated assertions that the political system is rigged for corporations and special interests, and, most of all, a determination to fight. At one point, she cited the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she helped set up, as “proof of how democracy can work in the 21st century.” In an age when so much of the political oxygen and outrage is spent on denouncing the government, it sounds strange to hear someone citing an acroynmed regulatory agency as an example of democracy at work. She also touched on issues such as student loans, crumbling roads, climate change, and expanding scientific research.

Warren has expressed no interest in running in 2016 and is unlikely to emerge as the nominee if she does so, but it’s not hard to see why she has such appeal to the liberal base. While there isn’t any shortage of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, she’s also a tremendously wealthy insider who has spent much of the past two decades in Washington. For people who are concerned with income inequality and the increasing power of corporations and billionaires in the wake of Citizens United, Warren may offer a fresher and more appealing perspective. Furthermore, there is an opening for a progressive, populist voice amidst a political discourse that has been dominated for six years by Barack Obama’s slow-pulse liberalism and the anti-government opposition. Warren has the potential, regardless of whether or not she launches a longshot presidential bid, to emerge as a significant national voice.


Well, that’s fairly disconcerting…

A quote from Micheal Grunwald’s The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, a new book that details the often unseen impact of the 2009 stimulus/American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Also known as the Failed Stimulus to all on-message Republicans.

“Polls have found that most Americans see the stimulus as a giveaway to bankers, confusing it with the $700 billion financial bailout that passed before Obama was elected. I interviewed several congressmen who were under the same misimpression.”

This was a $787 billion piece of legislation.


The Prince of Orange Wields His Pen

Over the weekend, John Boehner ascended the venerable soapbox that is to make the case for suing President Obama. The title of his op-ed, “Why We Must Sue the President,” reflects the idea that this lawsuit represents some sort of solemn obligation that House Republicans can hardly avoid. While there can be little doubt that Boehner sincerely believes that Obama has overstepped his authority, there is also little doubt that the Speaker knows this case is a political charade. Unfortunately, this latest invented crisis will cost taxpayer money, widen partisan divisions (if that’s possible) and plunge the country into another bitter political controversy.

The specifics of Boehner’s lawsuit are unknown, as his piece offered only vague charges that the President is “creating his own laws, and excusing himself from enforcing statutes he is sworn to uphold.” Presumably, this is a reference to Obama’s use of executive orders, which are frequently cited by conservatives as an example of his tyrannical rule. Executive orders, however, have been widely used by virtually every president since George Washington, and Obama has issued them at a slower pace than any president since Grover Cleveland. Although the constitution does not explicitly mention the executive order, the courts have upheld their use in several cases, and it is an executive power well within the boundaries of American political tradition.

One point Boehner fails to mention is that Obama’s alleged usurpation of legislative power comes at a time when the House has all but sworn off legislative action. Traditionally, the House is supposed to be a functional part of the U.S. government. Under the leadership of Boehner and his unruly Tea Party cadres, the house has continually distinguished itself through its inaction. Boehner to be jealously guarding a power he is determined not to use unless the platform of his party is enacted in uncompromised entirety. Given the fact that 66 million people voted for President Obama and his platform in 2012, this is a rather unreasonable expectation.

Beyond the platitudes about defending the constitution and legislative power, there is little substance in Boehner’s argument, and occasional hints at the political reasons for this measure. After charging that “the President has circumvented the American people and their elected representatives”, Boehner goes on to note that efforts by the House to address this problem have failed to pass the Senate. It seems odd that Boehner is circumventing the democratically-elected representatives in the Senate to sue the democratically-elected president in order to prevent the circumvention of elected representatives. Don’t bother trying to find the logic here, this is a political calculation.