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Is McConnell's post-Trump strategy working?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on Saturday. McConnell's verbal attack on Trump was the most blistering and succinct indictment of the former president of the entire impeachment trial. Credit: Bloomberg/Ting Shen

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a knack for making everyone mad. With his vote against former President Donald Trump’s impeachment, he angered both Democrats and many Never-Trump Republicans. His vote could have been seen as a cynical ploy to cozy up to Trump’s base, except for the scathing speech he delivered afterwards.

It’s a Washington cliche that people remember how you vote, not what you say. But in the post-Trump era, the opposite may be true. McConnell’s verbal attack on Trump was the most blistering and succinct indictment of the former president of the entire impeachment trial — so damning, in fact, that Trump emerged from his self-imposed media blackout to issue an equally fiery retort.

In it, the former president made the battle lines clear. "We know our America First agenda is a winner, not McConnell’s Beltway First agenda or Biden’s America Last," Trump’s statement reads.

This trichotomy is no doubt what McConnell was expecting, and it helps to explain not only his vote but also his vision for a post-Trump Republican Party.

The only possible punishment that the Senate could have imposed on Trump — and the one the House managers passionately argued for — was to bar him from public office. If it had done so, the man the majority of Republican voters support as the 2024 presidential nominee would have been prevented from running by the actions of Senate Democrats and Republicans. This is the very embodiment of the "Beltway First" mindset that Trump inveighed against.

To make matters worse, even had he voted to convict, there was no way McConnell could have gotten enough Republicans to join him. Under such circumstances, Trump’s acquittal would have left the former president both still eligible to run and supercharged by the failed attempt of the most powerful Republican in Congress to stop him.

That would have been a perfect setup for a Trump return. So that explains McConnell’s vote for acquittal. But what about his speech? Why did McConnell attack Trump in such a way that the former president can still frame McConnell as an out-of-touch insider?

There are those who saw his speech as craven. But McConnell’s remarks show the difficulty of the course he is trying to navigate. He needs to condemn Trump strongly enough that a simple reconciliation of the party under his leadership isn’t a fait accompli. Yet he can’t denounce Trump so completely that he hands him the mantle of outsider in chief.

It will be months if not years before it’s clear whether McConnell’s gambit is successful. The odds are stacked against him, but there will be signs to look for if it’s working.

The first and most important is if populist Republicans in the Trump mold line up with anti-Trumpers on policy measures. This is a crucial test because both groups are more moderate on economic issues than many so-called movement conservatives. If they can’t join forces, it will be a sign that Trump has succeeded in dividing the party between those loyal to him and those who aren’t.

If they can join forces, by contrast, it will be an encouraging sign for McConnell’s project. What would that look like?

The proposal from senators Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton to raise the minimum wage — but only with strengthened enforcement of laws against hiring illegal immigrants — is exactly the type of cooperation that McConnell has to be hoping for. It’s an undeniably Trumpist bill that is co-sponsored by the most notorious anti-Trumper in the Senate.

That can’t be the end of it, though. Between now and 2022, Republicans will have to unite around a host of measures that Trump will surely support — such as an insistence on opening up the schools faster than Democrats seem comfortable — while at the same time refusing to unite around Trump himself.

If they can do that, then McConnell’s strategy will have delivered to Trump what he undoubtedly fears more than anything else: not that he might be impeached, but that he will be ignored.

Karl W. Smith wrote this piece for Bloomberg.

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