Mitch McConnell’s Dilemma

Mitch McConnell has been the most influential and effective Republican leaders in the modern history of the US Senate. McConnell is finishing his 13thyear in this position, the first eight as minority leader and as majority leader since 2015. McConnell can point to a long record of thwarting Democratic President Barack Obama and using unethical and dishonest but extremely effective and clever tactics to ensure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court while shepherding over one hundred conservative federal judges through the confirmation process. McConnell has also done an impressive job of working with Donald Trump to pass tax cuts for the wealth and to roll back environmental and other regulations.

There is no question McConnell possesses a keen legislative mind that is not hindered by any notions of integrity or consistency. This approach has allowed him to thrive and succeed as the leader of his party in the Senate, but he is now being tested like never before. The dilemma McConnell faces is that as the evidence against Trump mounts, and as public opinion begins to turn even more firmly against the President, McConnell may have to choose between his President and his Senate majority.  

With impeachment by the House almost a certainty, and perhaps something that could occur before the year is out, McConnell may find that his pledge to support Trump and insure that the Senate acquits the President may come with a political cost. At the moment, it seems that if McConnell sticks with this position, he will face the usual criticism from opponents of President Trump, but that will not be a major problem for him. However, if current trends in public opinion continue and if Senators who defend Trump find themselves sounding as foolish as, for example, Ron Johnson (R-WI) in a recent interview, that may change.

A major part of McConnell’s success stems from both his lack of concern about his own standing in public opinion and his political strength in his home state of Kentucky, which is solidly Republican. This allows him to take broadly unpopular positions without risking his own political future. However, while it is clear that McConnell is not bothered by virtually anything Trump has done as President, it is less apparent that he can continually force his members to endure the humiliation of defending a President who has committed impeachable offense and is so deeply mired in corruption.

Nonetheless, from a tactical, if not Constitutional or patriotic, perspective McConnell’s current approach is wise. If Senate Republicans remain firm against impeachment, it will be easy for McConnell to hold a quick hearing and acquittal and then to hope that the Ukraine scandal fades away as new scandals, controversies and campaign issues arise. The problem McConnell has is that this scandal keeps growing. What two weeks ago looked like a whistleblower case centered around a phone call, now looks like a much larger corruption case that includes the Departments of Justice and Energy, as well as the President’s personal lawyer. As this scandal expands and worsens, individual Senators will be less comfortable committing to acquittal as they realize the political cost of doing that. In short, as the evidence against the President accumulates and the scandal gets worse, McConnell will have a very limited ability to persuade fellow Republican Senators to make a decision that could be both bad for the country and bad for their political future.  

This is where McConnell’s political skills will be tested like never before. If he loses control of his delegation, he will put his party’s majority and perhaps even his leadership at risk. However, if he cannot deliver an acquittal, or can only win that acquittal in a close vote, he will likely encounter the wrath of a President, or even a newly impeached and removed former President who will continue to hold sway over his party’s most rabid base. For example, if Trump is acquitted with say 55 Senators voting to convict-67 are needed for removal-there will be growing sentiment in the Republican base that McConnell is not up to the job anymore.

The only way McConnell can navigate these politically perilous upcoming months is to be prepared to abandon Trump quickly and build a consensus around impeachment if he sees enough Republican Senators moving away from the President. Before anybody gets too hopeful, it should be remembered that this may not happen at all. If support for Trump stabilizes where it is now, Republicans who vote to convict him will indeed be vulnerable in a primary and will vote to acquit. This will allow McConnell can let a small handful of Senators like Susan Collins of Maine or Mitt Romney vote against Trump and still deliver a resounding victory to the President.  

Photo: cc/Gage Skidmore