Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “got a load off his chest” with his speech closing out Friday’s second failed impeachment attempt against former President Donald Trump. “Unfortunately,” however, “he [also] put a load on the back of Republicans. That speech you will see in 2022 campaigns.”
Who’s responsible for that quote? It might surprise some it wasn’t Donald Trump Jr. or Rep. Matt Gaetz — it was Sen. Lindsey Graham, a moderate, hawkish Republican not up for re-election for six whole years.
“I would imagine if you’re a Republican running in Arizona or Georgia or New Hampshire, where we have a chance to take back the Senate, they may be playing Sen. McConnell’s speech and asking about it as a candidate,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And I imagine if you’re an incumbent Republican people will be asking if you’ll support Mitch McConnell in the future.”
McConnell isn’t a man used to public rebukes from the corporate wing of his party, but after the past month’s antics they are rightly deserved. Friday’s floor speech was no quick tantrum: It was the last stupid moments of the minority leader’s plan to purge the GOP of Donald Trump — a plan that began to unravel nearly immediately after its poorly conceived Jan. 12 rollout in the pages of The New York Times.
So what’s all behind this? After four years of yelling “MAGA!” while pushing his own classic, corporate Republican policies, McConnell had hoped to rid himself and his conference of the conservative populist nationalism the former president had championed and go back to the way things were. He wants a return to promising to tackle illegal immigration before winking at corporate America that nothing will change. He wants to raise money on fighting the abortion of our infants while comfortably lifting nary a finger. He wants to shrug and change the subject when asked about men dominating women’s sports and using women’s bathrooms. He wants fewer taxes and more wars. Hell, he wants someone to blame for the Republican losses in the Georgia special election, and with them the loss of his seat at the head of the Senate.
Instead, his push to impeach ended with rebuke from his own conference. Angry and embarrassed, he blamed his own colleagues as well as the former president, performing a 20-minute attack ad for the left to use on Republicans for the next election cycle and beyond.
Observers might call this stand selfless statesmanship, but a true statesman distinguishes himself from the operative, ideologue, or even philosopher by mediating between the real and ideal, prudently seeking out the possible without regard to his own interests. After five years of Russian and Ukrainian conspiracy theories and loudly cheered mob violence against Americans, Washington Democrats sought to smear the president and his supporters as the sole culprits of our divisions. They’d been hurling these accusations for years, and the terrible mob attack on the Capitol combined with Trump’s refusal to accept a finished-if-deeply-flawed election gave them the sword to make one last, unconstitutional try of it. McConnell tried to swing that sword.
“I think his speech is an outlier regarding how Republicans feel about this, “Graham said Sunday. “…The process they used to impeach this president was an affront to the rule of law… The trial record was a complete joke, hearsay upon hearsay, and… if you use this model I don’t know how [Vice President] Kamala Harris doesn’t get impeached if Republicans take back the House because she actually bailed out rioters and one of the rioters went back to the streets and broke somebody’s head open. So we’ve opened Pandora’s Box here and I’m sad for the country.”
Graham is right. The second impeachment trial was the final act in years of Democrats trying to usurp the former president and isolate and ostracize his supporters. After January’s shocking $8.3 million post-election fundraising haul — driven largely by small gifts averaging $32 a person — the decline of corporate and PAC influence in favor of base voters’ influence is starkly visible. Corporate politicians like McConnell don’t like this shift because it makes them responsible to that base, so this year, instead of trying to lead a changing party, he stamped his approval on Democrats’ attacks on it.
Far from over, as so many in power would prefer, the lines of the populist conservative fight for the Republican Party and the country are more clearly and publicly drawn than ever before. When they eventually take back the Senate as the pendulum of voter anger inevitably swings back against the current Washington rulers, Senate Republicans would do well to remember the opening months of 2021 — and remember Mitch McConnell.