Mitch McConnell Is Waiting for Trump to Face Reality

Charles Homans has a feature piece on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the New York Times, and he has a nice way of expressing how McConnell has fared during President Trump’s first two years in office.

When I first spoke with him, this past November, [McConnell] talked of the preceding two years with a faint air of mystified amusement at his own fortune: as if a minor meteor had streaked through the window of the majority leader’s office, narrowly missing his head before exploding against the two-century-old marble fireplace, and then also turned out to be filled with candy and hundred-dollar bills.

The record is fairly clear that McConnell did not want Donald Trump to be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. And it’s also obvious that he doesn’t like the president.

When I asked Elaine Chao, who is Trump’s secretary of transportation and McConnell’s wife of 26 years, if Trump and McConnell liked each other, she was silent for a full four seconds before replying, “You’ll have to ask the president that, and you’ll have to ask the leader that.” When I did ask McConnell, all he said was, “Yeah, we get along fine.”

If you look at McConnell’s actions carefully since the partial government shutdown began before Christmas, it’s also easy to see that he has no personal investment in Trump’s strategy. He has more than once absented himself from what would normally be united press appearances by the president and Republican congressional leaders. When he does attend negotiating sessions, he has almost nothing to contribute.

“He’s been very quiet,” Dick Durbin, the Democratic minority whip, who was in recent shutdown-negotiation meetings with McConnell and the Democratic Senate leadership, told me that afternoon, “and has said repeatedly that he’s not going to call any bill that the president doesn’t approve of. And that has basically been the sum and substance of his contribution.”

Insofar as he’s willing to articulate a position at all, it’s basically that the shutdown mess is not his problem to fix.

“I’ve been in the meetings,” McConnell, dressed in a pinstripe suit and a banker collar, said. “It’s just that I don’t have the votes that can consummate the deal.” Those votes could come only at the behest of Trump or the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, he insisted — and, McConnell continued, “it seems to me the principals, the only people who can make this deal, as of the moment we’re having this discussion, seem to both think they have a winning hand.”

McConnell is not known for his truthful portrayals of reality, but he seems not too far off the mark here.  Trump and Pelosi do both seem to think they’re playing a winning hand. It’s probably fair to say, though, that Trump has expressed more doubt about his position. As for McConnell, he doesn’t seem to have ever believed that the president’s intransigence would break the Democrats. He’s willing to give Trump a chance, but he’s really waiting for him to buckle.

Most reporting on McConnell’s thinking portrays him as worried primarily about himself. He’s up for election again in 2020 and he’s very unpopular in his home state of Kentucky. Over the last several years, he has usually ranked as the least popular senator in the country with his own constituents. In the latest Morning Consult poll, only Jeff Flake and Claire McCaskill had higher disapproval numbers, and neither of them survived the last election cycle. The thinking goes, then, that McConnell simply cannot afford to buck the president.

There’s definitely some truth to that, but it’s also important to think about McConnell’s concern for the Republican Party’s majority in the Senate. He does not want hurt the reelection prospects of his colleagues because it could send him back into the minority. So, he has very little interest in passing a bill that Trump will criticize and veto.  He suffered that fate once already before Christmas, and he’s not keen to experience a repeat.  It’s also key to McConnell’s current thinking that Trump had signed off on the deal last December before suddenly reversing himself  once he received criticism from people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.  He doesn’t have any reason to take Trump’s word that he’ll stick with any deal that is negotiated.

The best way of looking at this is that McConnell is angry with the president. He was double-crossed. He wasn’t consulted. He doesn’t believe in the wall. He doesn’t believe that Trump’s strategy will work.  He doesn’t want to take ownership of a deal that the president will characterize as insufficient or weak.  He doesn’t even want to appear with the president in front of the cameras.

I’d say his strategy is basically to let Trump keep banging his head against his wall until he breaks.  And when Trump admits he can’t get what he wants, only then will McConnell jump into the fray to help him limit the damage.

By taking the position that he won’t take up a bill the president won’t sign, McConnell is giving Trump a chance to break Nancy Pelosi’s will and ability to keep her caucus united, and that’s as much as he’s willing to give the president at this time.

There may come a time before too long that McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy need to seriously consider a veto override. The precipitating event may be that something really critical breaks due to lack of funding, like airport security or the courts.  It could be that public opinion turns very sharply against them and constituent pressure becomes unbearable. It could be that something breaks in the Russia investigation, either coming from Mueller or from the congressional hearings that are about to gear up in the House.  If Trump’s credibility drops suddenly and drastically, the congressional Republicans may conclude that they can’t allow a shutdown to continue on top of everything else.

McConnell wants to avoid that outcome, but he can’t continue his wait-and-see strategy forever if nothing changes. He might want Pelosi and the Democrats to break, but I bet he’d be just as satisfied to see the president capitulate. To him, Trump is like a child who won’t listen to adult advice and can only learn from the personal and painful experience of predictable failure.

Anyone waiting on Mitch McConnell to take a leadership role to end the shutdown is likely to be disappointed. He’s got his candy and his hundred-dollar bills, and he’s just going to wait this one out as long as he can.

Something will break, though. And I don’t think it will be Nancy Pelosi.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.