Mitch McConnell’s muddle

Updated
Mitch McConnell's muddle
Mitch McConnell's muddle
Associated Press

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has found himself in an awkward position. He’s an unpopular incumbent facing a credible Republican primary challenger and a credible Democratic opponent. His own campaign staff doesn’t really like him, either.

No matter which direction McConnell tries to lead his caucus, the Kentucky Republican risks alienating some key constituency’s support, so he’s left to just bite his tongue, doing nothing.

Last month, for example, when much of his caucus was at odds over a government-shutdown strategy, Senate Republicans needed some leadership. McConnell went out of his way to steer clear of the fight.

This month, Senate Republicans are at odds over U.S. policy in Syria, and once more, McConnell doesn’t want to talk about it.

Only one of the top five members of the bipartisan congressional hierarchy still sits on the fence about launching a punitive strike against Syria: Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.

The Kentucky Republican emerged from the White House on Monday as the only member of the bicameral leadership group still uncommitted to voting in favor of legislation authorizing military action.

McConnell looks to be taking as much time as he can. He’s weighing his political considerations back home, where an isolationist stance would provide clear short-term benefit, against the pressures of his leadership role at the Capitol, where he’s spent almost three decades as a Republican voice for a hawkish defense posture and an interventionist foreign policy.

This is the point at which congressional leaders try to, you know, lead. But McConnell, now afraid of his own shadow, is struggling to figure out which course will cause him the least amount of trouble. So as literally every other congressional leader takes a side – in this case, in support of using force in Syria – the Senate’s top Republican is left to effectively declare, “I’ll get back to you some other time.”

Perhaps McConnell is waiting to announce a position late on a Friday afternoon when he assumes it’ll make less news? More to the point, perhaps “Senate Minority Leader” is the wrong title for a lawmaker who feels so trapped, leadership isn’t really an option?

Sean Sullivan walked through some of the troubles weighing on McConnell.

For starters, McConnell is facing reelection in 2014 and a primary challenger who has said that the United States should not get involved in Syria. If he argues the opposite view, McConnell would immediately fuel debate and elevate the issue in the campaign.

What’s more, fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has come out in full force against military intervention. If McConnell had come out of the meeting Tuesday as supportive of Obama’s plan, he would instantly be triggering a story about discord over Syria within the Kentucky GOP delegation. And he would risk alienating Paul’s supporters. (Paul has endorsed McConnell’s bid for reelection.)

Third, there is some disagreement among Senate Republicans about which stance the United States should take with Syria, and the fault lines are complex.

No wonder McConnell is struggling. It’s getting to the point that he no longer remembers his positions on key issues.

Mitch McConnell and Syria

Mitch McConnell's muddle

Updated