Trump vs. McConnell: The Dems’ last, best hope for 2022?

By Nicholas L. Waddy

An important dynamic, to say the least, in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections will be the ongoing tension between the two most powerful figures in the GOP: Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. Given the mainstream media’s insatiable thirst for storylines that feature intra-Republican Party discord – witness the instant star power Liz Cheney acquired when she became a fierce critic of Donald Trump – even slight ripples of fractiousness are likely to be blown wildly out of proportion. Direct, furious broadsides, on the other hand, which Trump has shown no hesitation in delivering, could be politically earth-shattering, if delivered close enough to the election itself.

The latest fireworks between Trump and McConnell arose out of the controversy surrounding the debt ceiling. McConnell just agreed to a deal with the Dems that raises the ceiling for the national debt temporarily, meaning that the Treasury can borrow yet more money, as it is wont to do. Essentially, it gives the Dems – who run the country, after all – a couple months of breathing space, and it spares the country the horrors of a default.

Trump harshly criticized this move: “Looks like Mitch McConnell is folding to the Democrats, again,” he declared. Trump further accused McConnell of throwing the Dems a “lifeline.” “They were in a real big bind. They wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” according to Trump. “[McConnell] had the weapon, and he was unable to use it.”

McConnell was, in fact, retreating from his previous position. He had argued before that the Democrats should use the reconciliation process to raise the debt ceiling themselves, which is within their power. They refused, and they threatened to suspend the filibuster in order to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling without any Republican votes. McConnell therefore may have changed his position to protect the filibuster, or he may have believed that the dysfunctional Dems were simply incapable of fixing the debt ceiling issue on their own.

In any case, whether McConnell’s latest move turns to be smart politics or boneheaded cowardice remains to be seen. There’s a good chance that he will be vindicated, for the simple reason that, by ending the standoff over the debt, the GOP has put the Dems back in the spotlight where, a wily politico like McConnell might assume, they will promptly wet themselves and shatter their electoral prospects with internecine squabbling and legislative paralysis. We shall see.

One thing is for sure: Trump will keep sniping at McConnell for the foreseeable future. He can hardly stop himself.

McConnell, for his part, may be equally indisposed toward Trump, but history shows that he is far less likely to vent his displeasure. McConnell is not what would anyone would call “demonstrative,” but more importantly, he knows that antagonizing Trump would be monstrously unwise.

McConnell’s negatives were never higher than when, in January and February 2021, he attacked Trump directly, claiming that he was “practically and morally responsible” for the so-called insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Since then, McConnell has largely remained silent on all things Trump, no doubt partly to mollify the conservative members of his own caucus, who can hardly afford to pledge their allegiance to a minority leader who is also a notorious Trump-hater.

Trump’s attacks on McConnell, meanwhile, have, since those heady, riotous days of early 2021, been sporadic, and generally a lot less vehement than those he delivered in February (“Mitch is a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again”), but they have stung, nonetheless.

McConnell is, lest we forget, and regardless of his virtues and vices, the leader of the effective Republican effort to block the advancement of the Biden agenda in Congress, including the spendthrift $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill (and court-packing, and the federalizing of elections, and gun control, etc. etc.). His success in keeping the entire GOP Senate caucus united against the reconciliation bill – including Trump skeptics like Romney, Collins and Murkowski – and his accomplishment in frequently inveigling Democrats Manchin and Sinema in similar efforts, are praiseworthy, to any Republican who wants to prevent the seemingly inexorable rise of neo-Marxism and the welfare state, not to mention the decline of the “good faith and credit” of the U.S. Treasury.

Trump, however, has not praised McConnell, and presumably will not, regardless of the success or failure of his parliamentary maneuvers. If the Democrats do ever concede defeat and withdraw the reconciliation bill from the floor, even if Trump remains unmoved, presumably most Republicans will take note of McConnell’s herculean labors. His overall approval rating might even climb into the 30s! The wonders never cease.

If McConnell’s machinations fail, on the other hand, and the Dems do pass some version of their massive “social spending” bill, many Republicans will conclude that McConnell’s pusillanimity on the debt ceiling was what sealed their (and the nation’s) fate. And McConnell, needless to say, will face the implacable wrath of Trump and Trumpers everywhere.

None of this changes the basic fact that, reconciliation bill or no, the GOP is largely Trump’s party, as recent polling shows. 67% of Republicans want Trump to “remain a major national figure.” Polls forecasting the results of the 2024 GOP presidential primaries regularly indicate that Trump would receive a majority of the votes. Case closed.

McConnell is thus in no position to pick a fight, mano a mano, with a towering figure like Trump. Trump, on the other hand, can bop McConnell on the nose whenever he likes, at little risk to himself, but potentially at grave risk to the Republican Party as a whole, if such wrangling becomes front-page news, as the mainstream media desperately wants it to be, or if McConnell ever loses control of his caucus, which would open the way for the Democrats to pass all manner of wickedness into law, and potentially even for our competitive, two-party democratic system to unravel.

In short, we have to hope that McConnell continues to succeed in blocking passage of the worst of the Democrats’ legislative monstrosities. That will at least keep the Trump-McConnell feud smoldering slowly and sedately, and thus it will allow voters to choose who to support in 2022 based on more important and relevant factors, like, oh, the preservation of our constitutional rights and our capitalist system from the ravages of woke neo-Marxist authoritarians.

Fingers crossed! A lot is riding on this little tiff.

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