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Al Cross: McConnell stayed true to form; no guardian of the republic, but ready for the next battle

As the House impeachment managers concluded their case against Donald Trump Saturday, one seemed focused on a senator in the front row.

Rep. Joe Neguse, Colorado Democrat, had Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in mind.

He began by quoting Henry Clay, the Kentucky Whig whose desk McConnell treasures, and who first inspired McConnell’s ambition to be a senator.

He dropped the name of John Sherman Cooper, the Kentucky Republican who made McConnell commit to that ambition, and how Cooper voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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.

He noted that two senators in the chamber, one Democrat and one Republican, voted to overturn Ronald Reagan’s veto of sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa. He didn’t name them, but I’ll bet most senators knew who he was talking about: Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the presiding officer; and McConnell.

Those thinly veiled personal points may have seemed in vain, since McConnell had told his Republican colleague just beforehand that he would vote “not guilty” on disputed constitutional grounds. But Neguse’s implicit message was that the question of Trump’s fate went to the core of who Mitch McConnell is, or who he would be:

Would he be a historic guardian of the republic, voting to convict a president of his own party who incited a deadly insurrection against Congress and his own vice president in order to cancel the voters’ verdict?

Or would he be what he has always been: a careful and canny political player of The Long Game, the title of his autobiography, taking few risks and focusing on the next chance to gain advantage and power?

You know the answer.

The reasons are less certain, but pretty plain.

McConnell clearly wants to evict Donald Trump from American politics, as his post-trial speech made doubly clear. He showed his depth of feeling by going over 20 minutes and often adding to his text, most notably this: “President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office . . . Didn’t get away with anything, yet. Yet.” His index finger pointed up. It might as well have been his middle digit.

The leader had been Trump’s chief enabler after the voters threw them into harness. After they released them, and McConnell was re-elected to what is likely his last term, he was done. As The New York Times put it on Jan. 27, in that month he repeatedly “nudged open the door for his party to kick Donald J. Trump to the curb, only to find it slammed shut.”

McConnell told colleagues that the vote was one of conscience, but for him it was calculation. He must have seen that voting “guilty” wouldn’t bring along enough Republican senators to convict Trump; too many fear the cult leader and his grip on their voters. Even if he had, they would have been a caucus minority, in which a party’s leader does not fit well, and the risk to his position would have been even greater if he were not on the prevailing side. Self-preservation reigned, rationalized by a constitutional argument so dubious that McConnell dubbed it “a close call.”

The risk to McConnell’s leadership was on display the next day, as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the leader’s speech would be used against Republican candidates in 2022.

McConnell and Graham, who is acting like  Trump’s candidate to oust McConnell as leader, both have their eyes on the prize: 2022, which conservative columnist George Will called “perhaps the most crucial nonpresidential election year in U.S. history.”

Twenty Senate seats held by Republicans are on the 2022 ballot. Four have already announced they will retire, creating primary battlefields for the Trumpers and the traditionalists, led by McConnell.

As McConnell acolyte Scott Jennings said on CNN Monday night, the leader can’t let the primaries be reduced to McConnell vs. Trump. As Jennings didn’t say, that would be a losing proposition for McConnell, who has little following of his own except among his colleagues – and the big donors who fund their campaigns and are put off by Trump.

So, McConnell took the closest thing he could find to a political middle ground: voting “not guilty,” but then hanging it on a constitutional technicality, excoriating Trump and pleasing the donors.

Let’s not be too hard on Mitch McConnell for being what he’s always been. And let’s be thankful that he, as a leader of the Republican Party, is willing to speak the truth about America’s greatest liar.

But at the time of his greatest reckoning, McConnell chose to be a guardian of his party and his own power rather than the republic. In his business, you sometimes have to be willing to walk away from the job for the greater good, and he did not.

In the end, McConnell followed the old saw of political leadership: “There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

Joe Neguse tried to remind him of another course. In mentioning John Sherman Cooper, and looking directly at McConnell, he may have reminded the senator what Cooper told young Mitch McConnell when he asked his mentor why he was so strongly for the civil-rights bill when so many Kentuckians opposed it.

“I not only represent Kentucky,” Cooper replied. “I represent the nation, and there are times you follow, and times when you lead.” 

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  1. Becky Jones says:

    Thank you Mr. Cross, for your analysis. I appreciate your insight and talent.

  2. Ellen Ziegler says:

    You are so right, as usual. What a shame that it has become politics before country, power above honor. Thank God for people like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney. What a shame that people who voted according to conscience are being punished. We need to take a hard look at ourselves..

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