The remarkable broadside by Donald Trump against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier this week was something to behold, given that it was sent from unquestionably the most important current Republican leader to the party’s arguably most prominent and powerful face in Congress.
“Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” wrote Trump, in something that in an earlier, happier age, might have been the subject of a tweetstorm that would have dominated several news cycles.
Upon reading Trump’s characteristic counterpunch, one immediately has a few thoughts: First, more starkly than ever before, Trump has set up a contest between the populist-nationalist and the establishment wings of the party, one that will be necessary to decisively resolve if the party is ever to move forward. And second, one wonders how different the political history of the last four years might have looked had Trump taken this approach upon winning the 2016 election?
McConnell and the Sanctimonious Seven
McConnell, whatever his other faults, is usually a very strong vote counter and assessor of the political winds. He badly misread the mood of GOP voters. His maneuverings against Trump, including essentially begging for impeachment through leaks to New York Times, and then blasting Trump immediately after acquittal, left little doubt where he stood on the issue, nominal “no vote” notwithstanding.
Even worse, though, was the behavior of the GOP’s Sanctimonious Seven (Cassidy, Burr, Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Sasse, and Toomey) who felt that voting for Trump’s impeachment in an hysterical media-generated Democratic show-trial of dubious constitutionality somehow represented a victory for GOP voters and conservative values.
Their voters, expressing their views through state committees, are telling them otherwise in no uncertain terms. Almost all congressmen voting for impeachment were censured by their state parties, in several cases through unanimous votes. Primary challenges are already in the offing. Contrary to establishment rhetoric, these things are not happening because the GOP has become a “Trump cult” but because GOP voters have become firmly opposed to the weakness and capitulation cult that defined the pre-Trump GOP leadership.
GOP voters understand, in a way that some GOP senators do not, that in allowing themselves to be manipulated into the impeachment circus, our Republican politicians have been played again. There is a saying in poker that if you sit down at the table for 10 minutes and can’t figure out who the sucker is, then the sucker is you. GOP “leaders” have been at the table for decades in some cases but still can’t seem to find the sucker.
What Rand Paul Knows That Ben Sasse Doesn’t
For a look at an alternative and far superior way for the GOP to deal with Trump in exile, McConnell need look no further than his Kentucky colleague Rand Paul, who was perhaps Congress’s most talented Trump whisperer.
During the most recent impeachment, Paul—as has often been the case—found himself a fierce defender of the former president. His forcing a vote on impeachment’s constitutionality (very on-brand for Paul) before the proceedings even began was a political masterstroke. Before Paul’s maneuver, it looked like the impeachment proceedings might have gone either way. After, with just five votes in favor of its constitutionality, it was foreordained to defeat. Paul’s defense of the president during impeachment was a textbook example of why he was one of Trump’s most valued allies.
Contrast Paul’s performance to that of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse. Other than perhaps Utah’s Mitt Romney, Sasse has been Trump’s most prominent Senate critic. From the moment he announced he was skipping the 2016 GOP convention to “watch some dumpster fires,” Sasse has been a thorn in Trump’s side, a constant critic attacking the president relentlessly in books and speeches and always available for the fawning liberal media. Needless to say, he was a predictable vote for impeachment.
Viewing their public behavior toward the president, the narrative would seem clear: Sasse was a plague and Paul was a stalwart. But the numbers paint a more complex reality, one that shows how utterly devoid of political prudence the NeverTrumpers like Sasse were, and how Paul showed that it was perfectly possible to maintain one’s integrity and express policy views that diverged from the president’s without undermining Trump personally, pandering to the media, or accepting the Left’s bogus framing.
The political data-oriented website 538.com developed a measure called a Trump Score, essentially a measure of how often a given officeholder supported President Trump’s position on legislation. Looking over the Trump scores reveals some surprising results.
Of all the GOP senators during the Trump Administration, only Susan Collins (R-Maine) broke with Trump on more votes than did Rand Paul, who voted with the president’s position just 68.9 percent of the time. When Trump scores were adjusted for the politics of his constituency, Paul was by far the lowest GOP senator at negative 17 percent versus what would have been expected from an “average” GOP senator in that seat.
To be fair, much of this is due to Paul’s more libertarian tendencies. It is not a coincidence that Mike Lee (R-Utah), another member of the party’s more libertarian wing, was the next most likely to break with Trump. And raw scores also don’t fully capture the critical nature of various votes. He may have broken with the president on some questions, but on the most critical votes, Paul was always there—something Trump himself noted. “He never let me down.”
Political Prudence in Practice
Having supported the president at key moments, Paul was able to get valuable and real policy wins from Trump. He pushed the president successfully to remove troops from Afghanistan, while keeping the president from calling for regime change in Iran as many of his more hawkish advisors wished. He was a lonely voice in the GOP approving and, indeed, actively supporting Trump’s engagement with Russia and North Korea. On domestic issues, he was able to move the president on both healthcare and tax reform.
Contrast Paul’s performance with that of Sasse, who had an 85 percent Trump score and was actually 0.1 percent more favorable to Trump relative to expectations—in other words, he was very slightly more likely to vote with Trump than one would have expected given the politics of his constituency.
Does this mean Paul was not really a Trump ally while Sasse was secretly one? Hardly. It means that Paul understands the importance of political prudence and is one of the most skillful practitioners of it in contemporary politics—while Sasse is among the least prudent politicians in a long while. Paul shows that one can be a vital member of the Republican Party while still offering one’s own opinion and voice in key policy areas.
In contrast, Sasse shows that even when you vote the “right” way, you can be a huge net drag on the party and its mission, largely by feeding and legitimizing the relentless and hostile narrative of the Democrats and media. Sadly, many GOP elected officials, particularly establishment voices such as McConnell and Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), seem to have instincts similar to Sasse’s than to Paul’s.
Contra the NeverTrump Lilliputians, getting along with Trump required sacrificing neither one’s integrity nor one’s vote. It simply required using political intelligence and prudence—understanding where, and how, one could push on an issue without feeding the ravenous Anti-Trump media, which is always happy to trade a patina of temporary “respectability” (witness their recent fawning coverage of Cheney) to any politician willing to undermine the core interests of GOP voters.
While the future leadership of the party is unclear, it is virtually certain that Donald Trump will continue to be an overwhelmingly important figure in the GOP. That reality suggests that Mitch McConnell needs to get much smarter about how he will deal with Trump going forward. If he and many of his colleagues can’t do dramatically better than they’ve done the last few weeks, the GOP will need to find new leaders who can.