A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: McConnell to become longest-serving GOP boss, takes home-run trot as ‘Rome’ burns

WASHINGTON – Back in January 2007, when Mitch “Root ‘n Branch’’ McConnell was just beginning what will become his historic run as the longest serving Senate Republican leader in history, Congress was held in broad contempt by the American public with only 35 percent of those questioned in the Gallup Poll expressing approval.

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Under McConnell, first as the minority leader and, as of January 2015, the top dog in the Senate’s GOP majority, the situation has changed dramatically. Now, as a result of McConnell’s steady hand, polls show that a whopping 17 percent of the American public approves of what’s going on in its name on Capitol Hill, while 79 percent express dissatisfaction.

Way to go, Mitch!

Believe it or not there’s a degree of progress to be discerned from those numbers. As recently as last November only 13 percent thought Congress was performing up to snuff while 81 percent offered their thumbs down. At this rate, Congress might just return to the heady days of 35 percent by midcentury.

And then there’s the Morning Consult Senator Approval Rankings, released last month, that places ol’ Root ‘n Branch’s nationwide approval at 34 percent, rendering him as the least popular member of the upper chamber. He’s even less popular in his old Kentucky home, with the Big Red Poll conducted by the Western Kentucky University Social Science Research Center showing his support within the commonwealth at 30 percent.

To paraphrase the late John Houseman in the old Smith Barney commercials, McConnell acquired his reputation “the old-fashioned way’’ – he earned it.

For these startling results, Senate Republicans have consistently, over the course of more than 11 years, returned the Louisville lawmaker to his position as leader of the caucus. Come June 12, McConnell will displace former Sen. Bob Dole, of Kansas, as the longest serving GOP boss in history. Dole, a respected war hero, abandoned that position in 1996 to wage an ultimately futile presidential campaign.

Now it would be unfair to place the moribund opinion of Congress totally in ol’ Root ‘n Branch’s lap, since it can be accurately claimed that the Republican-run House of Representatives has proved similarly worthless over the same period as McConnell’s tenure. But anyone seeking to absolve him for contributing to the excruciatingly low level of support for Congress is being obtuse. In fact, it can be successfully argued that Addison Mitchell McConnell is the primary reason Americans have come to loath their government.

As political analyst Norm Ornstein said in an article for The Atlantic, “The United States has never had a Senate leader as ruthless, as willing to bend, distort and break the rules, traditions and precedents of the Senate as Mitch McConnell.’’

Despite all this, McConnell is taking what amounts to a home run trot regarding his long tenure, giving interviews and waxing nostalgic about what a wonderful job he’s done, humility not being a positive personality trait Mitch has ever embraced.

While he rounds the bases, Rome burns.

It was McConnell, remember, who rather infamously vowed that Senate Republicans would not cooperate with newly-elected President Barack Obama in 2008 even before he took the oath of office. This “no honeymoon’’ strategy was best captured by the late Sen. George Voinovich, the Ohio Republican, who said that under ol’ Root ‘n Branch’s guidance, “If he (Obama) was for it, we had to be against it.”

That led, according to Ornstein and fellow analyst Thomas Mann in a New York Times op-ed piece, to “a deliberate Republican strategy to oppose all of his initiatives and frame his attempts to compromise as weak or inauthentic. The Senate under the majority leader Mitch McConnell weaponized the filibuster to obstruct legislation, block judges and upend the policy process.’’

This point marked the beginning of the era when it became virtually impossible for Washington to get anything done, with Republicans, led by McConnell, utilizing the filibuster like it never had been used – or intended to be used – ever before.

And the public certainly noticed. It’s this inability to seemingly get anything accomplished in Washington, to make a move, any move, on the chess board, that has sent support for Congress reeling, all at McConnell’s behest.

This also marks the start of the accurate claim that McConnell places party before country, and that was never more apparent than his reaction to the news that Russia was surreptitiously involving itself in the 2016 presidential election in behalf of now-President Trump, which resulted in an ongoing investigation that ultimately will lead who knows where.

McConnell is taking what amounts to a home run trot regarding his long tenure, giving interviews and waxing nostalgic about what a wonderful job he’s done, humility not being a positive personality trait Mitch has ever embraced. While he rounds the bases, Rome burns.

In a memoir titled The World as it Is, published this month, Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes cites the Kremlin’s kibitzing and the then-president’s effort to forge a bipartisan reaction to the threat.

Obama authored a statement he intended to be issued by the nation’s intelligence community about a month before the election but was thwarted by McConnell, who refused to go along.

In his book, Rhodes characterized McConnell’s intransigence as being “staggeringly partisan and unpatriotic.’’ Obama, who by this time had wasted eight years dealing with ol’ Root ‘n Branch, wasn’t surprised, responding, “What else do you expect from McConnell?’’

Placing party above country, one would suppose.

A statement, with McConnell’s approval, was eventually released but it was watered down and said very little about the impending electoral threat.

There’s plenty more, none of it pretty. For beginners there’s unforgiveable treatment of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by Obama to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, who was a denied so much as a hearing or a private meeting by McConnell.

And there’s his constant placating of Trump, letting the least qualified person to ever serve as president – along with being vulgar, racist, misogynist and what have you – getting away with anything his greedy, little heart desires as long as he throws a few tokens in Mitch’s direction.

Ultimately, it’s a sad story. I started covering McConnell when he first ran for the Senate in 1984 and was as surprised as anyone when he defeated incumbent Democrat Walter “Dee’’ Huddleston, of Elizabethtown.

At that time McConnell came across as perfectly reasonable, a moderate conservative who pretty much represented the thinking of commonwealth voters in the 1980s. He was accessible and not given to the death-grip partisanship that we now find choking the life out of the nation’s government. He was a back-bencher for the most part, failing to come up with any legislation that would bear his name or create a legacy. The only thing he really seemed interested in was campaign finance reform, which he fought against tooth and nail.

But McConnell always coveted the position of Republican leader and he eased into the role when his predecessor, Sen. Bill Frist, R-TN, who was no leading light himself, opted not to seek re-election. After that, McConnell became a changed man, helping create the Frankenstein monster of a governmental system we all enjoy today.

I don’t know what brought that about. History will not serve him well.

For a moderate-sized state with big problems, like poor educational opportunities and poverty, Kentucky has consistently played over its head when it comes to sending individuals to the U.S. Senate. Representatives from both parties – Happy Chandler, Alben Barkley and Wendell Ford and John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton among Republicans – served their nation well.

Ultimately, Addison Mitchell “Root ‘n Branch’’ McConnell, hasn’t and the United States is worse off for it.

The NKyTribune’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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