Juan Williams: McConnell wins Round One over Trump

Let’s get ready to rumble. 

The fight for the future of the broken Republican Party now comes down to a cage match between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former President Trump.

Well, last week McConnell won Round One. 

That was good news.

Don’t get me wrong. 

I’ve seen McConnell do serious harm to American democracy. In fact, the damage he has done is second only to Trump. 

In my mind, McConnell will go down as one of the great villains of American history for stealing a Supreme Court nomination from then-President Obama by blocking Merrick Garland in 2016. 

McConnell’s partisan obstinance undermined public trust in the Supreme Court as well as the Senate.

That corruption was followed by his brazen hypocrisy in ramming through Trump’s last-minute Supreme Court nomination of an anti-abortion zealot, Amy Coney Barrett, in 2020.

But last week McConnell stood tall by beating back Trump’s acolytes as they tried to oust him and hang a gold Trump sign over the Republican conference in the U.S. Senate.

If McConnell’s brand of hardball, pragmatic Republican Senate politics had lost out to Trump’s stew of rage and racial division, it would have sealed the destruction of a major party. The GOP majority in the House is already under the control of extremists mimicking Trump.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a Trump proxy, led the mutiny against McConnell, having already defied the Senate leader in the run-up to the midterms. 

As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Scott burned through millions backing Trump-supported candidates of questionable “quality,” as McConnell put it. 

McConnell preferred mainstream conservatives with a better chance of winning because they could not be attacked as sycophants caught in Trump’s radical orbit.

McConnell proved to be right. 

Voters rejected many of the Trump-imitators backed by Scott as extremists. Their defeats cost Republicans the opportunity to gain majority control of the Senate.

But Trump, again acting through Scott, kept the fight going after the election by trying to oust McConnell as leader of the GOP Senate minority. 

Trump’s wants total control of the Republican Party, and a key step is relegating McConnell to a back bench instead of his current standing as the major anti-Trump voice in the party.

Scott lost the fight to oust McConnell by a vote of 37-10 inside the Senate GOP. But the war is not over. Those ten votes to depose McConnell have cemented a sizable pro-Trump faction in the Senate.

Open disregard for McConnell by so many prominent Senate Republicans left blood on the floor. Well-known Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) embraced Scott’s effort to unseat McConnell. Scott also enlisted Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).

Such open rebellion revealed a lack of fear of McConnell’s power. And even though he remains at the helm, McConnell is now commander of a divided caucus. 

“We had a double-digit vote against the current leader and that’s never happened in the time I’ve been here,” Cruz bragged after the vote.

Meanwhile, Trump kept up his end of the fight to control the future of the Republican brand by announcing that he is again running for president.

Trump will continue to berate McConnell at every campaign stop, seeking to further isolate the Senate leader within the party. 

Even as the winner of last week’s vote, McConnell remains the target of Trump’s efforts to bleed him of power. Trump has demeaned McConnell as “The Old Crow,” and even disparaged McConnell’s wife, mocking her Asian heritage.

McConnell is the heir to the brand of Republican politics established by Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and both the elder and younger President Bush. 

They backed big business and the military while making deals with Democrats to build highways, protect voting rights, and limit — but not kill — spending on social safety net programs, such as Social Security. 

Trump’s brand of Republican ideology sees that kind of steady conservatism as out of touch with right-wing populist rage. Trump’s faction has no problem creating huge deficits. His most ardent backers in Congress have consistently voted against U.S. aid to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

McConnell’s response to Trump’s allies is to point to the midterms and a steady stream of losses by Trump-endorsed candidates.

“We underperformed among independents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party, in leadership roles, is that they’re involved in chaos, negativity, excessive attacks,” McConnell said after surviving the challenge to his Senate leadership. 

Without mentioning the former president by name, McConnell said Trump’s preferred politics of rage, grievance, conspiracies, and division “frightened independent and moderate Republican voters.” 

McConnell further brushed away Trump-inspired criticism by saying he wants to work with President Biden on bipartisan goals.

But Trump landed blows on McConnell even before the challenge to his leadership.

Trump’s earlier assaults on mainstream Republican politics led several McConnell loyalists to leave the Senate, including Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Richard Burr (N.C.).

Trump doesn’t want Congress to function. He abhors bipartisan deals. He prefers broken government which allows him to claim in the style of dictators that he has all the answers. 

He certainly does not want Democrats and Republicans to share credit for solving national problems.

But for one week McConnell succeeded in defeating Trump’s dystopian vision.

Go Mitch.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

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