So, Liz is out. What about Mitch?
Republican House members’ removal of Rep. Elizabeth Cheney from their leadership Wednesday made some people wonder if Donald Trump’s next target/victim is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Don’t bet on it. McConnell and the senators who elect him leader serve six-year terms, which give them much more insulation from political tribulation than the two years of House members — most of whom seem scared that Trump would sponsor a primary opponent if they dispute his Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Cheney’s ouster could whet Trump’s appetite for revenge, but McConnell and Cheney are playing different roles.
She more or less invited her colleagues to oust her, by repeatedly speaking out against Trump, and she will keep trying to lead the party away from him.
McConnell tried that. He criticized Trump explicitly before, and implicitly after, the Jan. 6 insurrection that Trump inspired, and immediately after voting to acquit Trump of the impeachment charges that stemmed from it.
But when too few Republicans saluted his anti-Trump flag, McConnell hauled it down. He knows you can’t be publicly at odds with the most popular figure in your party and still be an effective leader of its senators.
The prime directive of a party leader is to hold the party together, and public division over Trump would make Republican senators likely to be in a true minority after the 2022 elections, not the bare minority created by having a Democratic vice president in a 50-50 Senate.
But in his effort to win back his former job of majority leader, McConnell is forsaking his prime directive as a senator. He swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” As Trump proved on Jan. 6, he is a threat to the Constitution, and he proves it every time he promotes the Big Lie that he is making the defining belief of his adopted party.
Cheney put it this way in her last floor speech as Republican conference chair: “We face a threat America has never seen before.”
Noting that the courts and Trump’s own Justice Department had rejected his election fantasies, she said, “Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution. Every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to thwart the unraveling of our democracy. This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent, and ignoring the lie, emboldens the liar.”
McConnell could say likewise, but he seems to be following one of his favorite maxims, “You rarely get into trouble for something you didn’t say.”
In an interview that aired Sunday, KET’s Renee Shaw asked McConnell for his current reflections on Jan. 6 and what has flowed from it.
“I had a chance to express myself . . . on three occasions . . . so I really don’t have anything to add to what I’ve already said,” he replied, counting as the first occasion his mid-December remarks declaring Trump the loser after the Electoral College vote.
McConnell at least needs to be repeating his statement that the election was legitimate. As a senior member of our government, he has a responsibility to make it worthy of our confidence. When the fundamental process of government, elections, is in fact worthy of our confidence but is under attack from liars and fools, and he does not repeat his confidence, he makes himself less worthy of leadership.
What McConnell did repeat was his Feb. 25 statement that he would support Trump if the former president were the party’s nominee in 2024.
Appearing incredulous that Shaw would even ask, he replied, “Well, as the Republican leader of the Senate, I think it’s safe to say I’m gonna support the Republican nominee! Yeah, I will; but I do think it’s going to be a contested race. I’ve got at least three or four members . . . who are likely to be running for president in ’24. I think most of us are focused on ’22 and whether the American people are satisfied with the new administration they’ve chosen.”
Earlier, he said, “I’m focusing now as the Republican leader of the Senate on unifying our conference against what I think has been demonstrated so far to be the most left-wing administration of my time in the Senate.”
It’s a familiar strategy: Unify by focusing on a foe, and if that foe is popular, make it less so by making it scarier. For many Americans, the scariest thing is Donald Trump and what he is doing to our democratic republic. McConnell knows that, but he won’t say it. He may yet get into trouble — at least with history — for something he didn’t say.
(Al Cross 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. This column first ran in the Northern Kentucky Tribune.)