Column: McConnell’s choice is emblematic of the GOP’s rot

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at a lectern on the Senate floor.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denounces former President Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 after he voted to acquit Trump in the Senate impeachment trial on Saturday.
(Associated Press)

The Republican Party is broken.

If Mitch McConnell were just another Republican senator, I’d say he was the eighth bravest. The seven bravest are the ones who voted to convict Donald Trump.

For weeks, I’ve been saying that if you claim to honestly believe that the Constitution forbids the Senate from convicting a former president (who, recall, was impeached while in office) you’re free to do so.

I think that is a profoundly wrong and dangerous view, creating the “January exception” the impeachment managers warned about. But if that’s your sincere view, you should be the one denouncing Trump’s actions more than anyone else. You should be full of anger, sorrow and frustration that this lamentable oversight by the founders — which again, doesn’t actually exist — prevents you from doing what the facts and morality warrant: convicting Trump for his hideous behavior leading up to, and including, the events of Jan. 6.


That is precisely what McConnell did Saturday, delivering a blistering and accurate denunciation of Trump’s moral, political and, possibly, criminal culpability. And while McConnell was wrong in his vote, he at least voiced the truth, something beyond the likes of those governed solely by political appetites — Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida et al.

It is always better to acknowledge the right, even when doing wrong, than to deny that wrong even happened. Hypocrisy, after all, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

The problem is that McConnell of Kentucky, whom I have long defended from many of his more extreme critics, is not just another senator. He is the Republican leader in the Senate and the highest-ranking GOP official in the country. More importantly, he was the majority leader Jan. 7, and by all accounts his views of Trump’s behavior were the same then as they are today.

If he wanted to, McConnell could have taken action to avoid the alleged problem of trying a former president by supporting a trial while Trump was still in office. Given the rules of the Senate, that effort may well have failed. But McConnell didn’t want to try for partisan reasons.

As Yogi Berra might say, when McConnell came to a fork in the road, he took it.

McConnell’s theory is that he can have it both ways: Simultaneously denounce Trump and provide him cover in the hope of reconciling the divisions in the party that cannot be reconciled. McConnell, though as shrewd as they come, will fail to satisfy both Republican and independent voters — and donors — horrified by Trump and the movement of those who want Trumpist populism to define the party.

McConnell’s choice is emblematic of the GOP’s rot. Republicans claim to fight for fidelity to the Constitution, traditional morality, law and order, economic liberty, fiscal responsibility, etc. As a conservative, I believe these are things worth fighting for. But most Republicans today don’t see these as principles to stand for, they see them as slogans to campaign on.


That is the only way to reconcile their sloganeering with their slavish support for Donald Trump — a thrice-married, admitted sexual predator who, as president, lavished praise on dictators, imposed tariffs with drunken abandon, tried to steal an election so brazenly he was impeached twice and set in motion a multi-pronged anti-constitutional assault on Congress and democracy that left dead cops in its wake and the impeachment clause of the Constitution a dead letter.

“Courage,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”

Again and again, at the moment of highest political reality, the bulk of the Republican Party has chosen Donald Trump — and the voters who dominate the primaries — over all other considerations.

Graham, who sanctimoniously spouts conservative campaign slogans so unctuously he’s left indelible grease stains in TV studios all around Washington, admitted on “Fox News Sunday” what his top priority actually is: “I’m into winning.”

Recall, on Jan. 7, before he was intimidated by the MAGA movement he once again champions, Graham blamed Trump for the Capitol attack. He now blames the police for not killing more Trump supporters and he blames House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) — whom some of those supporters wanted to kill — for not being better prepared for Trump’s mob.

Graham personifies political cowardice. Whether cowardice can lead to “winning” remains to be seen. And whether such winning is worth the price the Republican Party is willing to pay, only history can answer.