Mitch McConnell said something important last night.
I know that sentence isn’t likely to entertain or titillate — how often does Mitch McConnell fill that bill? — but we do need to remember that the ’16 election is not just about the White House. Control of Congress, most notably the Senate, is very much at stake, and whoever sits in the Oval will be enabled or foiled by Capitol Hill.
The Senate Republican leader isn’t popular with Trump’s pitchfork partisans, in part because he lauds the great man with all the enthusiasm of an accountant balancing a ledger, in part because they think he routinely caves to Obama. That explains why he took the stage to a serenade of boos; as a delegate said to me on the street this morning (with her friends nodding sagely), “That stinker deserved what he got.”
Considering the fact that he refused in an interview two weeks ago to say whether he thought Trump was qualified to be president, it was no surprise last night that he didn’t gush about the nominee. He did the de rigueur Hillary bash, and finally, midway through his rap, he managed to utter Trump’s name. But here’s how he did it:
“Two years ago voters delivered a clear verdict on the Obama years by sending a freshman class of rock-star Republicans to the Senate, and delivering us a majority that I promised to make you proud of. We never hesitate to confront the President, but we also do the hard work of tackling urgent problems head on. And, we delivered on that promise.
“We put Obamacare repeal on the president’s desk. He vetoed it. Donald Trump would sign it. We passed a bill to finally build a Keystone Pipeline. Obama vetoed it. Donald Trump would sign it. We passed a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. Obama vetoed it. Donald Trump would sign it. And, on that sad day when we lost Justice Scalia, I made another pledge that Obama would not fill his seat. That honor will go to Donald Trump next year.”
I happen to think that “rock-star Republicans” is an oxymoron, but, that aside, McConnell was making a crucial point about this election. He basically told the sizable cohort of anti-Trump Republicans — out there in TV land, and in the hall (where 721 delegates voted against Trump in last night’s roll call, the biggest No vote for a Republican nominee in 40 years) — that there’s still good reason to vote in November. Not just because a Republican Senate would check and balance a new President Clinton, but because a Republican Senate would (supposedly) compel a victorious Trump to rubber-stamp the Republican agenda.
And the GOP’s Senate majority is currently imperiled. If Clinton were to win the White House, the Democrats would need a net gain of only four seats to take the chamber. The most vulnerable Republican incumbents hail from states that voted twice for Barack Obama — Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Three of those states — Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Wisconsin — have gone blue in every presidential election since at least 1988. The winning presidential candidate typically has the coattails to sweep the Senate aspirant into office.
Plus, Indiana’s open seat is arguably in play for the Democrats, now that Evan Bayh — a popular former governor and senator with universal name ID — has decided to win back the job he gave up in 2010. Bayh is a tad boring — after he was vetted in ’08 to be Obama’s veep, Obama aide David Axelrod famously wrote, “He presented himself more like an MBA interviewing for a senior management position at Whirlpool” — but he’s a centrist, a good fit for that red state, and he still has $10 million banked from his last campaign kitty.
So McConnell is right: The Senate races are crucial. The Koch brothers are aiding the GOP in Ohio and Wisconsin, and George W. Bush has taken a break from painting puppies to hold Senate fundraisers. All in all, these races are ideal refuges for Republicans who are loath to lift a finger for Trump. And I agree with the analysts who say that the Republicans might indeed keep the Senate if their blue-state incumbents can semi-distance themselves from Trump. (In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey is already doing it.)
McConnell’s basic message was that Hill Republicans will drive the agenda even if Trump somehow gets himself elected — but it has one potentially big flaw. How can McConnell be so sure that Trump would sign a bill to defund Planned Parenthood? Or that he’d nominate a conservative litmus-test judge to the high court? Or that, in general, he’d willingly take direction from McConnell and Paul Ryan?
Trump covets power; the rest is unknowable. Quite possibly, McConnell’s biggest enemy is not Hillary Clinton, but, rather, it may be his own naivete.
Mike Pence speaks tonight! For his sake, I hope Trump doesn’t derail the spotlight by phoning into Fox News for his nightly attention fix.