Heading into the 2014 midterms, I opined that the best thing that could happen to the GOP was to retake the Senate, but to have then-minority leader Mitch McConnell lose his seat. His reputation as a wily tactician (read: mean sonofabitch) notwithstanding, he was manifestly lacking in leadership qualities, and his tired, business-as-usual image was exactly wrong for the times. For a time, his seat seemed to be in jeopardy against challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, but the wave election bore the old sea turtle aloft and landed him safely on the shores of his old Kentucky home.
More’s the pity. Since winning that election, McConnell has distinguished himself more by what he’s not done than anything he’s actually accomplished. True, he refused to hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination by President Obama to the Supreme Court, but any Republican worth his salt would have done the same thing; that was simply action by inaction. More recently, he has signally failed on the One Job the GOP was handed its majorities in both houses to accomplish, the repealing of Obamacare and other excrescences of the prior administration, such as the monstrous Dodd-Frank bill and its brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
So it’s no wonder that McConnell is now the poster boy for the Do-Nothing Congress of 2017-18, and one of the principal reasons the GOP is in danger of losing its grip on both houses a year from now:
Nobody wants to be on Team McConnell. Heading into the 2018 elections, only one Republican Senate candidate nationwide has pledged unequivocally to back Mitch McConnell as majority leader. Most Republicans facing competitive primaries are hemming and hawing, admiring McConnell’s political savvy and fundraising apparatus — but also looking warily at his sinking approval ratings both with Republicans and the broader electorate.
Even in some of the red and purple states represented by Democratic senators where McConnell is hoping to pad his majority — places like Missouri, Michigan and Wisconsin — the leading candidates are dodging questions about McConnell’s leadership or threatening to oppose him if the GOP Congress doesn’t deliver on the party’s legislative priorities in the coming months.
A few Senate candidates are outright spurning him, aligning themselves with former White House strategist Steve Bannon. Both Democrats and Republicans think President Donald Trump has simultaneously elevated McConnell in importance and blamed him for the slow pace of Republican legislating, including the failure to repeal Obamacare. The result is a GOP Senate leader few candidates want to publicly align with, even if they’re likely to support him if they arrive in Washington.
On paper, the 2018 elections, especially on the Senate side, look like a slam-dunk for the Republicans. The Democrats have to defend 25 of the 34 seats on the ballots (including two phony “independents”), many of them in states Trump won last year. But McConnell has become increasingly radioactive, and will only get more so as we approach election day. If for no reason other than his public persona alone the GOP ought to dump him: Democrats understand Hollywood and the media in a way the Republicans don’t, and they understand that McLuhan was right and the medium in politics really is the message.
That’s a message that may have played in Kentucky — McConnell won re-election handily, as things turned out — but it’s likely to boomerang in 2018. If the election of Donald Trump taught us anything (and, apparently, it hasn’t), the voters are fully prepared to keep tossing the bums out until they get a group of bums in that they like — and who will actually do something. Beltway insiders praise McConnell’s “leadership” because their definition of it is exactly the same as the Beltway’s. But paper-pushing and cloakroom arm-twisting, McConnell’s strong suits, aren’t going to cut it anymore.
Nor does the majority leader’s thinly veiled contempt for the president help. A year after the election, it does no one on the right side of the aisle any good to continue the “resistance” when there is still so much work to be done. McConnell is a creature of the Swamp, and exists by inhaling its noxious gases; no wonder he passively-aggressively opposes the White House at almost every turn.
Corey Stewart, the Trump-aligned local elected official in Virginia who narrowly lost this year’s GOP primary for governor and is now challenging Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, said he encountered little backing for McConnell while traveling the state. “The guy’s toxic,” said Stewart, who has courted Bannon’s support. “There’s no support for him, even among the establishment. He hasn’t been able to pass the president’s agenda.”
It’s a shame that McConnell’s seat is not up next year, otherwise the smart play would be for the GOP candidates to run against McConnell himself, if only to show they mean business. Instead, the Democrats will turn Mitch into Trump’s henchman, the evil genius who wants to deny your kids health care and kill your grandma. They’ll do so because they’ve bought into the compromised media’s narrative that most of the country hates Trump and can’t wait to see his agenda frustrated at every turn — a belief shared by the #neverTrumpumpkins on the right, who continue to treat Trump’s victory last fall as a personal affront to themselves, their dignity, and their self-worth. But we know this is not true, and the scalps of soon-to-be-former senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake are hanging outside the lodge as proof.
The 2018 midterms could be the battlefield on which the “resistance” is finally smashed. Or they could be Mitch McConnell’s revenge, as he steers the GOP safely back to the harbor of minority status, consolidates his own power while eliminating his responsibility, and sets up an electoral donnybrook in 2020 — just for the hell of it. The choice is ours.