Indifferent to irony, McConnell slams Obama on respect for norms

Since the former president was right about an issue of historic significance, I don't think he's the one who should be keeping his mouth shut.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden meet with Members Of Congress to discuss Foreign Policy, Washington DC, on July 31.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden meet with Members Of Congress to discuss Foreign Policy, Washington DC, on July 31.Rex Features via AP, file
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By Steve Benen

While Barack Obama has generally refrained from publicly criticizing Donald Trump, the former president has occasionally made his concerns known. Late last week, for example, Obama participated in a private call with alumni of his administration, and lamented the fact that Team Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been an "absolute chaotic disaster."

Obama added, "What we're fighting against is these long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided, and seeing others as an enemy — that that has become a stronger impulse in American life.... It's part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anemic, and spotty, and it would have been bad, even with the best of governments."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was outraged, not because Obama's assessment was wrong, but because he believes traditional norms require a former president not to say such things, even in a private call.

"I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut," McConnell said in an interview with Trump 2020 senior adviser Lara Trump... "You know, we know he doesn't like much (what this) administration is doing, that's understandable," he added."But I think it's a little bit classless, frankly, to critique an administration that comes after you. You had your shot, you were there for eight years."

McConnell added, "Generally former presidents just don't do that."

The Republicans' Senate leader was wrong in ways that are worth appreciating in detail. First, the idea that former presidents "generally" refrain from criticizing their successors, even in private meetings, isn't true. This idea seems to have taken hold in recent years, but it's at odds with the historical record. (Theodore Roosevelt's criticisms of William Taft, for example, were quite scathing at the time.)

Second, I'm not unsympathetic to the idea that political norms have value, but if Mitch McConnell believes he's a credible messenger for this message, he's mistaken. As regular readers know, it was McConnell, for example, who helped change Senate norms to require 60-vote supermajorities on every piece of legislation of any significance.

It was McConnell who was responsible for creating the modern judicial confirmation wars. It was McConnell who cooked up an unprecedented scorched-earth scheme to undermine Barack Obama's presidency, deliberately refusing to consider any compromises -- even if it meant rejecting his own ideas -- in the hopes of trying to ensure that the Democratic president only served one term. It was McConnell who imposed the first-ever, year-long blockade on any Supreme Court nominee, regardless of merit.

To paraphrase a certain someone, generally Senate leaders just don't do this.

But even if we put this aside, as McConnell wrings his hands about national leaders showing "class," honoring norms, and acting in accordance with how presidents "generally" act, it's hard not to notice that the GOP leader seems wholly indifferent to applying these same standards to Donald J. Trump.

As Jon Chait added yesterday, "McConnell has spent years sitting idly by while Trump has shredded norms of presidential conduct. And not just issues of superficial manners -- important democratic norms like 'don't encourage your supporters to commit political violence' and 'don't threaten to imprison your rivals,' among many others. McConnell's sudden emergence as defender of presidential-conduct norms is absurd."

If Obama had privately peddled some wild-eyed nonsense, it might be a little easier to understand Republican outrage. But since the former president was right about an issue of historic significance, I don't think he's the one who should be keeping his mouth shut.