What Is McConnell's Play?

by Neil H. Buchanan

[Note to readers: I have published a new column today on Verdict: "What Do 'High Negatives' Mean? Or: Hillary Clinton On Her Worst Day Is Better Than Donald Trump On His Best."  I have nothing to add here to what I wrote in that column, but I obviously do hope that many people will choose to read it.]

The total collapse of the Republican leadership's opposition to Donald Trump was, to say the least, unexpected.  After mocking him every step of the way during the primaries -- and despising Trump so much that they even reluctantly rallied around the much-hated Ted Cruz for a few weeks -- the party's leaders inside and outside of Congress ultimately fell in line very quietly.  There have been a few holdouts, such as Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney, but no one predicted the degree of unity that Republican leaders have shown in supporting Trump.

At some point soon, I will write about the peculiar tragicomedy that has become House Speaker Paul Ryan's career.  For now, I will merely emphasize a point that I made in a Verdict Column two days ago.  Ryan has been reported as saying that Trump's attacks on Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel are the textbook definition of racism, yet Hillary Clinton is not "the answer."  I noted: "Republicans like Ryan do not view Hillary Clinton as a preferable alternative even to an unashamed racist becoming president. Amazing."

Ryan's Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is in many ways a more interesting story when it comes to Trump.  While Ryan has spent his career grandstanding about his supposedly high principles and (non-existent) policy chops, McConnell has never been anything but a bare-knuckled politician who represents the interests of the wealthy and powerful.  People who had bought into Ryan's false moralistic posturing were surprised that Ryan ended up endorsing Trump.  For McConnell, however, there were no principles -- insincere or otherwise -- to compromise.

McConnell's career has followed the standard 20th-Century path of climbing the Senate ladder by accumulating seniority and political IOU's.  He is a standard-issue political hack, willing to say anything at any moment if it serves his purposes.  And I mean anything.  He once said that low voter turnout by poorer citizens is an indication that they have no complaints about their government.  He relentlessly pushes the specious idea of Obama's "war on coal."  And on and on.

The Senate's refusal to hold hearings on the Merrick Garland nomination to the Supreme Court is McConnell par excellence: Take a completely defenseless position and repeat it unflinchingly while twisting weaker colleagues' arms to stay in line.  It does take a particular talent to spend hours in front of TV cameras refusing to give an inch to interviewers, especially when one's only talking point is, "The voters should decide."

Again, however, McConnell seems to follow no grand philosophy of governing or economics.  If something is good for the people who back him, and if it will win elections for Republicans, McConnell likes it.  He apparently initially thought that the Tea Party movement would harm Republicans, and he fought strongly against Rand Paul's candidacy for the other Kentucky seat in the U.S. Senate, before deciding that he needed Tea Party votes for his own reelection.  He wanted to move from Minority Leader to Majority Leader, and that career goal mattered more than anything else.

All of which makes McConnell's role in the Trump drama especially interesting.  Even if the politics were somehow to work out that Trump could win while the Republicans lost the Senate, it is impossible to imagine McConnell thinking that such an outcome was acceptable.  The Majority Leader's role is what McConnell has coveted for his entire career, and he would surely prefer to lead a Republican Senate's fight against President Hillary Clinton rather than serve as minority leader under an orange president.

In the real world, where the real question is whether Trump's loss will also result in a Democratic majority in the Senate, McConnell faced an interesting choice.  He and his colleagues could simply give up on winning the White House this year, knowing that four or eight years of another Clinton presidency would make them grind their teeth, but also knowing that they can try to limit the damage while allowing the party to rebuild itself to prevent future Trump-like candidacies.  Given McConnell's long-term commitment to Republicans' winning elections, he might have been exactly the person to take the broader view that a loss now could be a win later.

Therefore, McConnell and his leadership team could have said, "We do not endorse Donald Trump, who is an interloper to our party and a danger to the country.  We urge voters, however, to understand that a Republican majority in the Senate will provide an important brake on Hillary Clinton's presidency."

Although such a statement was imaginable only a few weeks ago, McConnell et al. apparently concluded that they risked a backlash from their base voters who abandoned them in droves during the presidential primary.  McConnell, therefore, was forced to adopt a somewhat more indirect form of that strategy.  McConnell has apparently let it be known that it is acceptable for imperiled Republican senators and candidates to distance themselves from Trump.  So far, however, McConnell has been willing to stick with his endorsement of Trump.

Importantly, however, McConnell has been dancing around Trump while the presumptive nominee has gone from one controversy to the next.  Last week, prior to the Orlando shootings, the Trump outrage du jour was the attack on Judge Curiel.  While Ryan was playing the drama queen, McConnell let it be known that he "would not rule out the possibility of rescinding his endorsement of Donald J. Trump’s presidential bid down the road."

In one way, that might look like a rare flash of statesmanship from the ultimate partisan insider.  McConnell was blunt about Trump's lack of knowledge about the issues, for example.  Yet McConnell merely said that "checks and balances" in the system would rein in Trump, which provides a window into McConnell's inflated sense of his own importance and power.

After all, one of the most serious concerns about a Trump presidency is that no one really knows what would happen if Trump simply decided to stop playing by the rules.  What happens if McConnell leads a group of congressional leaders to the White House to tell Trump that he cannot do something, but Trump simply refuses to meet with them.  (Or maybe he would have them arrested?)

I find Eric Posner's views on executive power chilling, and it was especially scary when he wrote recently about the many ways in which a President Trump could simply do as he pleases.  And Posner nevertheless continued to rely on the claim that "no court would allow him to" withdraw climate regulations, whereas the real question is how the courts would actually stop him.  Posner notes that career civil servants could refuse to go along, but he then admits that Trump could probably work around that roadblock, too.

McConnell could, therefore, be utterly naive in thinking that he would continue to matter in a world where he is the leader of the Senate but the White House is occupied by a man who attacks everyone and everything who stands in his way.  I certainly never thought that I would describe McConnell as naive about politics, however, so it would be helpful to think of an alternative explanation for McConnell's refusal to stand up to Trump now.

As I noted above, McConnell is not one of those people who thinks only in the short term.  Although he is a street fighter who will do everything possible to help Republicans win every election, he has the ability to see that some races will be lost and that the party can prosper after defeat.

So what is McConnell's view of how to control Trump?  Referring to Trump's choice of running mate, McConnell said: "He needs someone highly experienced and very knowledgeable because it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues."

In other words, the Republican establishment's answer to Trump is ...  Dick Cheney 2.0!  But why would anyone think that Donald Trump would be as disengaged as George W. Bush was during his presidency, allowing a consummate party insider to run the show?  Even when establishment figures have tried to ally themselves with Trump, Trump takes them for granted and ignores what they say.  He even continues to mock them, as he did recently by indirectly referring to Chris Christie's self-aggrandizing 2012 convention speech.

Admittedly, McConnell has no good options.  But given his mastery of the dark arts of insider politics, it is all too easy to imagine McConnell thinking that if Trump could be not be controlled, he could be jettisoned.  After all, if there is a favored party insider in the Vice President's residence, and President Trump starts to commit impeachable offenses, how is that not a win for McConnell?

To be clear, I am not saying that McConnell is consciously dreaming up such a strategy.  Maybe he is enough of a patriot that he would not try to bring about a constitutional catastrophe that would surely damage society, the economy, and everything else.  But if one's goal is to put the Republican establishment in power, and Trump is standing in the way, extreme measures do exist.

Luckily, all of the evidence indicates that Trump will continue to melt down, and we will never have to test any of these theories.