It is a feud for the ages between the two most powerful leaders of their party, but famously of opposite disposition – one a bombastic iconoclast, the other a courtly parliamentarian. One thinks the other is the worst possible leader for his side, a protector of the reviled political establishment at all costs. The other thinks his nemesis is utterly reckless and irresponsible to the point of single-handedly costing his party – and him – control of the Senate, an offense he will never forgive.
You would think we’re discussing a clash between Donald Trump and, say, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, or Hillary Clinton, but of course we are not. The offending party in the eyes of the 45th president is a fellow Republican, one Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, erstwhile majority leader of the U.S. Senate who hopes, perhaps at this point even expects, to regain his old post following 2022 midterms. Trump has refused to back off his ongoing cascade of verbal broadsides aimed at McConnell, which began following the 2020 elections. And he doubled down recently, calling the senator “the best thing that ever happened to Democrats,” implying that the Senate Minority Leader is too weak to stand up to his opponents. This, in an apparent effort by Trump to consolidate his control of the party faithful ahead of an election which looks more and more promising for the GOP.
Of course, Republicans’ midterm optimism is due almost exclusively to a remarkable succession of failures by the ruling Democrats at both the presidential and congressional levels. The GOP has applied long standing political wisdom in standing aside and allowing their opponents to destroy themselves unimpeded, mostly just drawing attention to the wreckage. But if it continues to metastasize, this bitter rivalry, stoked again recently by Trump even as McConnell refuses to take the bait, stands to open old wounds which could jeopardize the rosy Republican outcome predicted for next November.
The former president attacked McConnell for refusing to support his claims of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, and since leaving office has accused the Senate leader of rolling over for Democrats on raising the debt limit, getting nothing in return, and for his stewardship of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Trump typically did not mince words, nor does he appear to have changed his mind, since his classic Trumpian diatribe 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.”
On the other hand, if the Kentucky senator had any appetite for continuing to publicly express support for a president with whom he had at best a tenuous relationship from the jump, it all evaporated in the most awful two-day span in memory for the Republican Party. On January 5, Democrats won both senate seats in Georgia, allowing them to seize effective control of the upper chamber. McConnell accused Trump of suppressing the vote by suggesting the outcome was rigged in advance. And we all know what happened on January 6, for which McConnell also condemned Trump: “There’s no question—none—that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
So, what good can possibly come from this nasty fight between the nation’s two most powerful Republicans? The short answer is nothing; politics is about addition, not subtraction. Trump was widely criticized for failing to expand his voter base between 2016 and 2020 while driving away others who had been part of his winning coalition. McConnell has never been able to comprehend the Trump revolution, or act upon its populist impulses. The rank and file are with Trump, but much of the professional GOP is with McConnell. If Trump runs once more, these two will at some level have to reconcile their feud – at least publicly – for the sake of restoring Republican rule, or risk exacerbating ugly intra-party divisions that could torpedo a prospective GOP victory.
Republicans need look no further than their opponents across the aisle to understand the level of damage that can be wrought from a split in party ranks. Shrill progressives are on the warpath, attacking fellow Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia for daring to oppose his party’s reckless and dishonestly presented social welfare legislation. This type of division is hardly a good look to voters, and Democrats are likely to pay a steep price in November of 2022. If Republicans don’t learn from this particular history lesson, they will ultimately be doomed to repeat it.
~ Read more from Tim Donner.
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