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Bill Straub: Mitch McConnell is no prize as party leader but what can we expect in his successor?

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the earth mother of the new, mean-spirited Republican Party, was attending some sort of right-wing confab in Coeur d’ Alene, ID, ground zero for White Christian nationalism in this great nation of ours, last month when she asked the scores of folks in attendance to respond to this statement:

“How many people here, raise your hand if you believe Mitch McConnell is a Democrat.”

The hall was thereupon filled with raised right hands, evoking, perhaps, a low point in European history back in the 1940s.

There was, however, at least one dissenting voice.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

“He’s a Communist is what he is,” one person can be heard shouting. “Just like our government.”

Good ol’ Mitch. In these historically divided times, the Senate Republican leader from Louisville has managed to bring the right and the left together like brothers in arms on at least one issue – they both despise him.

As Oscar Wilde said, “He has no enemies but is intensely disliked by his friends.”

The harsh feelings toward McConnell on the left are easily understood.

This is a man who sought to thwart the entirety of former President Barack Obama’s agenda throughout his eight years in office, placing his pique over an unsatisfactory relationship with the president over the good of the country. And he quite literally cheated in an immoral display of political power to get three right-wing yahoos on the Supreme Court, thus obstructing anything approaching progress in this country
for at least a generation.

For that, and other things, Addison Mitchell McConnell will ultimately fare poorly when the history of the era is written. (May we note, at this inconvenient point, that the 81-year-old McConnell was hospitalized in Washington Wednesday night after suffering a fall at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Here’s to sincerely wishing him good health and a quick recovery.)

The animosity on the right is more difficult to comprehend, especially since McConnell is arguably the nation’s highest ranking Republican official, favorably considered by a majority his fellow GOP senators, who have made him the party’s leader for a record-setting 16 years and counting.

But, as a fellow named Dylan once wrote, “The times they are a-changin.” The present-day Republican Party is a different animal than the one that produced Mitch McConnell. The question isn’t so much whether the ground has shifted under McConnell’s feet during his 38 years in the Senate – it certainly has – but how much. And can a Republican lawmaker who emerged from the traditional deal-making environment – save, of course, for those eight Obama years — continue to thrive, especially since his career is definitely on the downward slope.

On one side his problems are manageable. McConnell has regularly been re-
elected every six years by Kentucky voters and will almost certainly be returned yet again in 2026 if he chooses to run. Regardless, it’s fair to say the name McConnell and the word beloved have rarely if ever been used in the same sentence. A large number of the Commonwealth’s GOP voters – who now outnumber Democrats – joined the national trend and aligned themselves with the party’s Attila the Hun faction. If he were somehow pitted against fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul, R-JeffYass, with whom he is feuding, the smart money would go to the crass and nasty Paul.

But should he decide to enter into one more campaign at age 84 – he hasn’tindicated one way or another – he’ll have more money than God. And he’ll be running in the general election against a candidate carrying the banner of a political party many new GOP voters hate with the fury of a spurned lover.

McConnell is indeed fortunate that, as a senator, he doesn’t have to run nationwide. Polls regularly show him as the most unpopular figure holding elective office in the country. The issue is one of purity. And his unwillingness to bow and humble himself before the golden calf of the Republican Party, former President Donald J. Trump.

While McConnell has remained critical of most of the agenda offered by President Joe Biden, a Democrat and old friend from the Senate, he has also sided with some of the administration’s key initiatives, including a substantial infrastructure package, a modest gun regulation measure and, particularly, support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.

That’s enough to initiate condemnation proceedings. The new Republican Party has essentially ostracized anyone who so much as looks favorably upon any Democratic initiative, worthy or not.

“It’s not just the Democrats in Washington who are destroying our country,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-FL, who has stepped forward as the major anti-McConnell GOP voice in the senate. “You’ve heard the famous quote: We’ve met the enemy and he is us. Unfortunately, some of the leaders of our own Republican establishment, they’ve been in Washington way too long and they’ve forgotten why they came here. They’ve gotten used to caving in to the Democrats. They do it over and over and over. Instead of the Democrats compromising their liberal principles, they roll over, and compromise our conservative principles.”

It was Scott, who did a lousy job as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2022, who consistently butted heads with McConnell during the campaign and challenged him for the leadership job at the outset of the 118th Congress, the first time McConnell faced opposition for the job.

McConnell won handily but the knives were out of their sheaths. The Attila the Hun crowd also seethed when McConnell directed tons of campaign money to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, in her ultimately successful re-election campaign last year. Murkowski actually lost the Republican primary to Kelly Tshibaka. But as a result of the state’s ranked-choice voting system, Murkowski was on the November ballot and prevailed, thanks in some measure to the McConnell lucre.

McConnell was censored by the Alaska Republican Party for working against the chosen GOP candidate. He also didn’t endear himself to the far-right crowd because of his lukewarm support for Blake Masters, the party’s Senate candidate in Arizona, and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire.

But most of the animosity, of course, comes from a single source.

Sometimes it seems Donald J. Trump would rather insult McConnell and see him lose than regain the White House.

The hatred is white hot, reaching a low point where Trump actually wondered if McConnell has a “death wish,’’ going beyond that to hurl racial insults at McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao.

Despite claims to the contrary, McConnell and Trump disliked each other
throughout the four years Trump was in the White House but they had to work together to keep the country running and to stack the Supreme Court. But the nicey-nicey ended when McConnell acknowledged that Trump failed to win re-election – the Pumpkin-skinned ogre continues to claim it was stolen from him — and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, where Trump spurred his followers to take action.

From that point on hostilities proceeded at a dizzying pace. Trump condemns McConnell at every opportunity. McConnell responds in a way that just drives a kook like Trump mad – he ignores him.

It seems the Trump MAGA following is nothing short of a cult. When Fearless Leader says jump, the followers ask how high. It’s the sort of adoration Trump pulls from his followers who comprise a substantial portion of the Republican Party. And McConnell, the alleged Democrat, is the primary target of their ire.

McConnell is no prize as Republican leader. In many ways he’s been a failure. But what can we expect to take his place when he exits stage left?

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