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Al Cross: At 77, McConnell faces big decision about his legacy — a Trump enabler or a Senate leader?

Mitch McConnell turned 77 Wednesday. He’s at the point in life where you reflect, sometimes at length, on how you will be remembered. If the Senate majority leader had any such ruminations in the last week or so, they should have troubled him. He risks going down in history as the main enabler of an autocratic president’s challenge to our constitutional system of government.

Mitch McConnell

The available evidence is that McConnell counseled President Trump not to declare a national emergency at the Mexican border, then reversed course and said he would support such a declaration – because he thought he had to, in order to get Trump to sign a bill keeping the government open. To make sure, he rushed to the Senate floor, interrupting another senator, to announce that the bill would be signed and that he would back the emergency declaration.

Before and during his reversal, McConnell was trying to protect himself and his fellow Republican senators – first, from a vote on a House resolution to quash Trump’s ridiculous declaration, which could divide the Senate majority and thus weaken its leader; and second, from another government shutdown that would further damage Republicans.

What McConnell wasn’t protecting was constitutional government. Never before has a president used emergency powers to get access to taxpayer money that Congress has denied him through its fundamental authority, the power of the purse. A previous Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott, said last week, “Somebody is going to have to say enough is enough.” That’s a leader’s job.

McConnell may rationalize that courts will decide the issue, but that’s the easy, politically safe way out. His party is in the grip of Trump’s personality cult, which poses the threat of primary challenges to senators who stray – even McConnell, who is slated to run with Trump in 2020 and is about as unpopular in Kentucky as the president is popular.

But nationally, Trump is not popular, and in the last week we’ve had another round of stories that in previous presidencies would shock the nation and the system: trying to send sensitive nuclear secrets to Saudi Arabia, taking Vladimir Putin’s word about North Korea rather than U.S. intelligence, and trying to derail the federal investigation of him in the Southern District of New York – to say nothing of the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Sadly, we’re so accustomed to such outrages that they no longer create outrage.

Henry Clay

Perhaps Mueller’s report will have enough to lead to Trump’s downfall or at least to make Republicans publicly acknowledge the dangers that he presents to the rule of law. McConnell will be a key player in that; it may be his last chance for a good place in posterity.

Our senior senator’s latest act in the Trump tragedy has reminded Americans of other things they don’t like about him, such as: keeping a Supreme Court vacancy open for more than a year; refusing to join a statement that intelligence officials wanted, to warn about Russian meddling before the 2016 election; saying in 2010 that “the single most important thing we want to achieve” as Republicans was to deny Barack Obama a second term; and being the most important player in making the filibuster and a 60-vote threshold a standard operating procedure in the Senate.

McConnell clearly values his place in history. He has written an autobiography; he cooperated with a recent New York Times Magazine profile of him; he treasures the Senate desk of Kentucky’s Henry Clay, who led the Senate before the leadership was formalized; and keeps hung in his inner office portraits of Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper, for whom he worked, and Democratic Sen. Alben Barkley, the only other majority leader from Kentucky.

Alben Barkley

The Barkley portrait looms large now. From 1937, when he was narrowly elected leader with the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to 1944, Barkley was often considered FDR’s representative to the Senate, rather than the other way around. In 1944, Roosevelt wanted higher taxes to pay for World War II and curb inflation, and Barkley got a bill passed, but it had only a fifth of the revenue FDR wanted. The president vetoed it, and 75 years ago Saturday, Barkley resigned in protest. Almost immediately, the Democrats re-elected him. He was no longer Roosevelt’s man, but the true leader of the Senate. (That made him the top candidate for FDR’s running mate that year, but their bad blood got Harry Truman the job – and the presidency, when Roosevelt died in 1945.)

So, what will Mitch McConnell be? Donald Trump’s main instrument in the Senate, or a leader who will have the Senate stand up for the cause of constitutional government?

More than his place in history may hang in the balance.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune and KyForward are the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

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  1. Jennifer Cook says:

    The problem here is a weak Democratic Party. Who could run against McConnell? I have only 1/2 facetiously wanted George Clooney to move back to Kentucky and run against him, but seriously. It seems the party is determined to divide itself in the race for the head of state government, which will only, 1) keep Bevin from running against McConnell in the primaries and 2) help Bevin win a second term.

  2. Marv Dunn says:

    Right now I would vote “enabler” for McConnell. But his own security is never far in the back of his mind with elections coming up in less than two years. At this point, I see Amy McGrath as his strongest opposition.

  3. Bill Adkins says:

    He’s already made his choice, as have many Republicans. He and they have determined American institutions like Congress and the judicial system have outlived their utility and they’re actively participating in their destruction by passing Enabling Acts.

  4. Debra Hardymon May says:

    Too late for McConnell. He has already assured his place in history as an enabler. The entire Republican Party is afraid of its base. They can’t see the forest for the trees. Trump is not popular in this country overall. It will ultimately doom the party but they only see as far as the ends of their noses. I have no optimism that we will ever learn what is in the Mueller Report because it is at the discretion of the AG to release it. If some of the people who worked on it or Mueller himself sees fit to leak things after it has been submitted, then we will learn bits and pieces. Otherwise, I think it will be buried by the AG. I have no faith in any Republican who is in charge of anything. On a local note, I see Bevin being reelected because this state is still happily married to Trump and he will come here and talk Bevin up so the minions will vote for him.

  5. Debra Hardymon May says:

    We don’t have a Democrat capable of beating McConnell either. They are pushing Amy McGrath to do it and she is as capable as anyone but I don’t think they will elect here. In Kentucky, all a Republican has to do is say “abortion, LGBTQ, guns and the wall” and boom! Bob’s your uncle. They win.

  6. Kenneth Hines says:

    Thanks, Al. You have a strong, respected voice in Kentucky that McConnell likely at least will hear. It is important that you emphasize that he can create a more honorable and respected legacy by thwarting Trump’s most authoritarian move to date. I, on the other hand, have a still, small voice that quickly will be lost even among whispers. McConnell would not hear me were we in the same room. That leaves me free to say that Mitch McConnell did not need Donald Trump to dismantle democracy in America. He and his party have been hard at work doing that for decades. McConnell already has written his shameful history, and he cannot amend it with a single swipe at Donald Trump.

  7. Rich Miles says:

    I too pick “enabler” for McMitch. He’s already made the choice, n will only underestimate the intelligence of voters if he flip flops again.
    As for Bevin, he stated recently that “bloodshed may be necessary” to uphold the conservative standard. Is this the language of a leader, never mind his party?
    I’ve really had it with these Repugnicans. Conservative? What are they conserving? They’re destroying the country. Literally. I think it shd be made a felony to be a Repugnican. But it won’t be, because Democrats care about the Constitution. Unlike the opposition, who will say anything to achieve political advantage.
    They are despicable people. Simply disgusting.a blot against American principles.
    N besides, if they’re so great, why do they need to fix elections? They should be able to win on their merits. But lies n cheating n vote theft are needed to increase their chances. N they often still don’t win.

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