Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a tough job, and I’m not even talking about crafting and passing legislation.
He has to protect incumbent Republican members, prevent rogue elements from infiltrating his caucus, and keep the president at bay. And all of these challenges are coming to a head right now.
Having narrowly failed to pass the “skinny repeal,” the leader of the fractured majority can ill afford to lose a single ally. However, that’s just what could happen on Aug. 15, when a McConnell loyalist, Sen. Luther Strange, will try to fend off conservative challenges from Rep. Mo Brooks and former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.
Just as McConnell did in 2014, when he helped endangered incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran fend off a nasty and crazy primary challenge in Mississippi (a bizarre one that ultimately resulted in a suicide), he’s again going all-in on protecting his guy, with his Senate Leadership Fund pledging to spend upwards of $8 million to ensure Strange stays in the U.S. Senate.
There is always the chance this machination could backfire in a low-turnout August primary where hardcore conservatives are most likely to show up at the polls. Strange (who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions) was a very conservative state attorney general. Today, for better, or worse, he finds himself cast as an establishment Republican—which is a dangerous place to be in a primary. It seems likely that Strange will fail to garner 50 percent and that Brooks will meet him again in a September runoff. Conventional wisdom suggests runoff elections always favor the challenger over the incumbent, but with McConnell’s help, Cochran was able to win a runoff in 2014.
In some ways, the U.S. Senate is a microcosm of the national electorate. If demography is destiny, then stacking the Senate with your supporters makes it more likely your legislation can actually pass. Endorsing Strange should be a no-brainer, but President Trump has yet to do it.
Aside from delivering an obvious shot in the arm, Trump’s endorsement in a state like Alabama would help blunt Brooks’ conservative outsider-versus-establishment message. What is more, Brooks has publicly attacked Trump in the past.
(Note: McConnell might not even be in this bind had Trump tapped Democrat Heidi Heitkamp to head the Department of Education. That would have sent Republican Kevin Cramer to the U.S. Senate, likely resulting in Republicans passing health care reform—as modest as that version might have been.)
Aside from not helping the majority leader hold this Alabama seat, Trump is now complicating McConnell’s life by threatening Republican senators like Dean Heller and Lisa Murkowski over their health care votes, tweeting about how efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare aren’t finished “unless the Republican Senators are total quitters,” threatening to end “bailouts for insurance companies” (a continuation of his threat to let Obamacare fail), and urging Republicans to drop the legislative filibuster—a move McConnell believes would backfire when Republicans are in the minority.
Having failed to pass any major legislation in his first six months, President Trump should be reevaluating his legislative process, just as he is reevaluating management of the West Wing.
Hiring John Kelly as White House chief of staff seems like a positive move aimed at bringing discipline to a chaotic White House, but while the general knows how to manage bureaucracy and impose order, he lacks legislative experience. Truly turning things around will require a two-pronged approach to both impose an appropriate chain of command inside the West Wing and to put some legislative wins on the board. He might even think of McConnell as a legislative “general.”
Trump’s running out of time to realize that McConnell’s best interests are his best interests. They both suffer when the president pretends toknow how the Senate really works.