Where is Mitch?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Federal and local law enforcement officials in Kentucky and the District of Columbia have initiated a nationwide search for Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. The Kentucky Republican has been missing since December 22, 2018, the day the longest government shutdown in American history began. Officials are not ruling out the possibility McConnell’s disappearance is connected to the impasse between President Donald Trump and the Democrat-controlled Congress over funding a border wall.

Officials also have not ruled out foul play, but they suspect McConnell is hiding — perhaps in plain sight — to avoid forcing Senate Republicans to vote on Democrat-sponsored bills to open the federal government without providing funds for the wall demanded by Trump. McConnell’s disappearance, if voluntary, means he is not heeding his favorite aphorism: “One of my favorite old Kentucky sayings is there’s no education in the second kick of a mule.” McConnell cited that adage when promising after the failed GOP-inspired government shutdown in 2013 to always keep the government running. At that time, he told Republicans in Congress, “The first kick of the mule was when we shut down the government in the mid-1990s,” and the second kick was six years ago.

Polls indicate Mitch McConnell is not very popular with Kentuckians

McConnell’s apparent willingness to sustain a third kick from the proverbial mule may stem from his lack of popularity in Kentucky. Polls show him ranked as the least popular member of the Senate, and, in the latest poll in Kentucky, 56 percent of McConnell’s constituents disapproved of his job performance. By contrast, the president is more popular in Kentucky than the senator; in a poll last month, Trump’s approval rating in the state was 55 percent. 

McConnell is up for reelection in 2020, and while he, no doubt, would prevail in the general election, despite his unpopularity with voters in the Bluegrass State, he might have difficulty getting that far if he goes back on his promise not to bring a measure to the floor that Trump will not sign. McConnell is doing Trump’s bidding on the wall, despite Trump’s deviousness during the negotiations leading up to the shutdown. On December 19, the Senate passed a measure to keep the government open — without money for the wall. McConnell had Trump’s assurance the president would sign the bill, until provocateurs in rightwing media — Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter — took Trump to task for accepting a budget bill without wall money. At that point, Trump went back on his promise to McConnell.

The empty Capitol

Fear of a primary challenger on his right may factor into McConnell’s calculation that he is better off shutting down the government for a long period than allowing a vote in the Senate for which the outcome would be no additional money for Trump’s vaunted wall. And, so the majority leader disappears at the very moment when he holds the key to ending Trump’s shutdown over a wall for which Mexico was supposed to pay.

Twenty-one other Republican seats are up in 2020. A few of those seats are in states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 — Susan Collins in Maine and Cory Gardner in Colorado — and a few other seats may be vulnerable, but the vast majority of GOP-held Senate seats are in solidly Republican states such as Wyoming, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Like McConnell in Kentucky, senators from other red states may fear a primary challenge if they anger the Republican base by a vote to reopen the government that does not include money for the wall.

Still, Senate Republicans may be putting themselves in a worse position by keeping the government closed. Polls show voters overwhelmingly blame Trump and congressional Republicans for the shutdown — 53 percent in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll compared to only 29 percent who cite Democrats. Ending the shutdown would be popular, and while Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020 may face the wrath of rightwing voters, more than 30 Republicans in the Senate do not face the voters until 2022 or 2024. They probably could ride out the anger of the base, and their votes combined with Democratic senators would provide a cushion to override any potential presidential veto of a measure to reopen the government.

President Trump and Majority Leader McConnell

But, no vote comes to the floor of the Senate without McConnell’s approval, so the shutdown continues until other Republicans put enough pressure on the majority leader. Senate Republicans are foolish to tie themselves to Trump and his vanity project. The president is flailing, facing the possibility of impeachment and numerous congressional investigations by Democrats in the House, not to mention the possible release soon of a report by special counsel Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump’s presidency may not last the year. Even if it does, his chances of winning reelection are dwindling. The ship is sinking, and it is time for congressional Republicans to demonstrate courage and abandon it. At some point, Trump’s allies in Congress will have to choose between supporting the criminal enterprise residing in the White House or doing the right thing.

McConnell surely knows all this. Besides, why be loyal to a mercurial president who does not keep his word? How many times will McConnell allow himself to be kicked by the mule in the Oval Office? Apparently many, which is why the senator who cut deals to end previous real and threatened shutdowns remains on the sidelines. “Ultimately the solution to this is a deal between the president and Nancy [Pelosi] and Chuck [Schumer], because we need some of Chuck’s votes, and obviously, we need Nancy’s support,” said McConnell.

Mitch, come back to the Senate and do your job!

Posted January 25, 2019


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