By John David Dyche
Republican presidential candidates and prominent conservative commentators criticize the same people. Popular targets of rhetorical fire from the right include, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, ISIS, Iranian mullahs, Vladimir Putin … and Mitch McConnell.
As to the latter, the complaints are reminiscent of that famous line from Walt Kelly’s comic strip, Pogo. "We have met the enemy and he is us."
McConnell had a handful of conservative adversaries before becoming Senate Majority Leader. Former South Carolina Senator and current Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint comes to mind.
Some right wing radio talkers and Tea Party types backed Matt Bevin in his quixotic primary challenge against McConnell last year. But generally speaking, conservatives and Republicans were glad McConnell won a landslide reelection after national Democrats tried to defeat him.
Trouble started soon thereafter. McConnell wanted to show that Republicans could govern. Influential conservatives like Rush Limbaugh argued they should focus instead on fighting against President Obama’s liberal agenda and executive overreach.
The Senate Republican majority was not big enough to end legislative filibusters or override Obama vetoes. Unified Democrats could block bills as Republicans under McConnell's leadership had done for the last four years.
Republicans now set the agenda and forced some difficult political votes, but their only real leverage was often the threat of shutting down the government. Having seen the GOP burned by that tactic before, McConnell took it off the table early in his tenure.
Several conservatives saw this as a tactical mistake. They noted that the 16-day shutdown in 2013 over defunding Obamacare did not hurt Republicans in 2014's elections when they won the Senate and increased their House of Representatives majority.
McConnell opted instead to make the Senate work better than it had under his dictatorial Democratic predecessor Harry Reid. The Nevadan was notorious for marginalizing committees, not holding many votes, and limiting amendments.
The new Senate got some important things done: bipartisan human trafficking legislation, Keystone pipeline approval, terrorism risk insurance, a budget resolution, trade-promotion authority, Patriot Act reauthorization, a permanent fix for Medicare payments to doctors, and congressional review of the Iran nuclear deal, among other things.
McConnell earned positive press, but this list did not set conservative hearts aflutter. He also brought up hot-button conservative measures like repealing Obamacare and de-funding Planned Parenthood, but critics claimed these were show votes with no chance of passage.
Fire-breathers started attacking McConnell for refusing to go to the mat on these issues. Things came to an ugly head recently when Texas Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz on the Senate floor accused McConnell of telling "a simple lie" to him and all Senate Republicans about a deal with Democrats for a controversial Export-Import Bank vote.
Cruz said, "We know now that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment, that he is willing to say things that he knows are false." Strong stuff from someone supposedly against "Republican-on-Republican violence."
McConnell made no public rebuttal. Some other Republican Senators defended him and inside-the-Beltway media ran a few favorable stories, but McConnell chose to isolate Cruz inside the GOP caucus instead of publicly feuding with him.
When Cruz castigates the "Washington Cartel" on the campaign trail he means McConnell. Others are piling on the Kentuckian, too.
Wisconsin Governor and presidential candidate Scott Walker recently agreed with radio's Glenn Beck that members of "the establishment, like Mitch McConnell" are "part of the problem" in Washington. "Yes, I hear it all the time, and I share that sentiment," Walker said.
Rising Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina told Breitbart News she was frustrated. "People worked incredibly hard -- tens of thousands of activists across the country spent their time, energy, and money to win this historic majority in the House and a majority in the Senate. Change was promised, but people don't see that change."
Fiorina, did not indict McConnell by name, but added, "It's a leader's job to produce results. The leadership in the Senate and the House need to produce results … or they need to step aside."
Such criticism is not confined to presidential candidates seeking media attention in a crowded field.
Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, recently tweeted, "Mitch McConnell says review procedure for Iran deal is 'obviously stacked in the president's favor.' Why then did he support this procedure?"
Andrew McCarthy, a contributing editor at National Review, who had already blasted McConnell for allowing confirmation of Obama's nominee for Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, concurred with Kristol. Neither man explained how McConnell could have gotten a better review procedure, however.
Columnist George Will came to McConnell's defense arguing that those angry at McConnell should be angry instead at James Madison, the Constitution's chief architect.
"Their problem is we sent all of these Republicans to Washington and they can't work their will from Congress. The fact is the separation of powers, which is there for a reason and served us well over time, is an impediment to getting things done in Washington. Get over it."
Republican presidential candidates and conservative opinion mongers are unlikely to heed Will's counsel. McConnell may be a Republican punching bag for months, at least until the party nominates a presidential candidate.
How will he handle it? Probably quietly, and by just doing his job.
A better question is how these GOP presidential candidates plan to get their own agendas through Congress if Democrats retake the Senate, as is possible, or reduce the Republican majority, as is likely.
But unlike McConnell, they are not now responsible for actually producing results.
Until they are, their critical talk is cheap.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)
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