McConnell and the rise of Donald Trump

03/07/2016 09:04 AM

Kentucky caucus winner Donald J. Trump might be Mitch McConnell’s worst nightmare, but he could also be a manifestation of Congressional Republicans opposition of President Barack Obama the past eight years.

There seems to be a pervasive frustration with the president, a deep seated mistrust of Washington, including Congress, in the electorate and establishment Republicans including McConnell are catching the blame they have helped manufacture.

“I think people are angry. They’re furious with Washington and Trump is a loud voice and they view him as a vessel for that anger,” said Trump’s current top-rival in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, this week in an interview with Fox News.

There are currents and undercurrents to the situation with Trump and the GOP, and part of that brash and rude attitude voters are seemingly connecting with could come from how the Republican Party has treated the president in his last two terms.

“There’s a direct line between how Trump supporters and the Republican Party view the presidency, and how Republicans, including Senator McConnell, have treated the president,” Kentucky Democratic operative Matt Erwin said in an interview with Pure Politics.

Erwin evidenced his treatment of the president by the slowdown in Congress (the 112th and 113th Congresses were among the least effective in passing legislation in modern history) and the change in rhetoric from the opposition party what once seemed to be disagreement turned into being disagreeable.

“Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term”

McConnell announced that top political priority in 2010 at the Heritage Foundation, but by the time he announced the direct opposition to Obama the change was already underway as the tea party had already started making waves — eventually stealing elections from the establishment including in Kentucky.

The change in how elected leaders interacted with the president and presidency had also already started to change after Obama’s first year in the White House. Presidents are afforded an offer from Congress to lay out policy agendas in a joint session of Congress known as the State of the Union.

In 2009, the Democratic president was interrupted during his State of the Union speech by South Carolina U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson shouting, “You lie.”

Wilson was publicly rebuked, but the partisan divide only grew both in Washington and across the country, that snapshot in time might have been an ember which lead into the fires of this Republican presidential nomination contest in 2016.

“They’ve attempted to delegitimize the man and in the process they have delegitimized the office,” Erwin said of the outbursts coming from the right.

Over the course of the Obama years, McConnell has acted as both chief obstructionist and as key deal-maker with the administration. The work has not earned the six-term Congressman accolades with his party or the American people.

McConnell has a 16 percent favorability rating among voters in his own party as he tries to hold his Senate majority and caucus together, and behind the scenes combat Trump.

A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling in Dec. of 2015 showed McConnell polling a point higher with Democrats than Republicans. Congress is also wildly unpopular with a 13 percent approval rating among voters.

That un-ease with the establishment could be a factor in why Trump was able to win a majority of Kentucky delegates and is leading in the road to becoming the GOP nominee.

Confluence of factors, re-alignment of the party system

Republicans too said, “establishment leaders” are to blame for Trump, though they say there’s quite a bit of nuance to the situation.

Former McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton, who stepped down from McConnell’s 2014 re-election bid after an investigation into an Iowa bribery scandal linked to Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, said there are a confluence of factors adding to the rise of the real estate mogul.

An undercurrent among those, he said is a frustration within the proletariat. He said a generation of blue collar workers feels left behind and confused with where the party and the country is going – and they don’t trust the establishment to lead them from their current positions.

Benton said the grassroots, rank-and-file Republicans have been promised the solutions each election and they’re not seeing a change in their lives or difference in how Washington is run.

“For years there’s been so many things that have been promised and there hasn’t been any delivery,” he said.

In 2008, Benton said the grassroots had been force fed then Presidential nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain who got blistered in the presidential election. Then in 2010, came the tea party wave and he said the electorate was “thinking things were going to change, and things didn’t change.”

By 2012, came GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who “in many ways turned his back on the grassroots.”

During the 2014 elections, leaders, including McConnell told the GOP that if they could win majority control of the Senate “we can do all these things,” Benton said and that didn’t change much either.

While he didn’t speak of McConnell by name, Benton said there hasn’t been “any real engagement from the party leaders or the establishment…with the grassroots about why we live in a system so difficult to govern.”

Complicating factors for McConnell and the GOP is that “the grassroots doesn’t get that story,” Benton said a $100 million cottage industry has cropped up within the party that only is pointing out short coming of top leadership and establishment.

Trump has been able to take advantage of that by speaking his mind and pointing a finger at anyone within arms-reach.

Benton said leaders don’t get that they need to communicate with the grassroots, “and in large part they don’t care.”

When asked if disengagement from the grassroots element of the electorate is McConnell’s fault, Benton told Pure Politics that engagement has “never been Mitch’s forte” though he defended his former boss.

The former McConnell and Paul strategist said McConnell never wanted to be the defacto leader of the GOP, but because of a “rudderless party” Kentucky’s senior senator has been forced into the role.

For Benton, the story is still being written, but what he is seeing is a disrupted system that is re-aligning the political parties between inside establishment figures and the grassroots, and right now outside forces are winning.

Angry, authoritarian want in party, end of intellectualism

Trump’s angry base connects with an equally angry and unrestrained candidate. Trump’s rally’s and recent debates have very little to do with policy, but rather an insult contest. His lack of political correctness is deemed a quality to the candidate.

However unrecognizable on the surface there is a nuance to Trump supporters who have picked the New York real estate mogul as their candidate over other outsider candidates.

Republican strategist Scott Jennings, a McConnell protégé and former special assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy White House political director, told Pure Politics there is “nuance to the anger and who is angry” and who voters are supporting in the nominating contest.

“I don’t think you can just blanket say, ‘people are angry’ because it ignores the fact that one of the original people who took advantage of that anger – Cruz – is in the race and is apparently not benefiting from it,” Jennings said.

“I think the issue people are missing is twofold – one, there is an element of the American voting population that would prefer a much, much stronger, more authoritarian presidency,” he continued. “That is actually, I think, anathema to many tea party conservatives because that means less power for the people and their representatives in Congress and more invested in one singular person.”

Second, Jennings said that Trump’s success represents “a war on pablum.”

“Over time a lot of the rhetoric we hear from politicians has become very similar,” Jennings said. “Race to race, candidate to candidate, you see a homogenization of the kinds of speech and phrases that many candidates use.

“Trump comes along and sort of conducts a war on pablum and sounds different than what you get out of most other politicians,” Jennings continued. “So I think in addition to his appealing to those who want a more authoritarian presidency, he is succeeding in breaking the mold of the normal kind of political speak that people have come to dislike and that’s helping propel him along.”

The debate pundits and thinkers within the party are having is one of the role of an authoritarian president, and whether or not a vindictive president who promises to single out individual corporations and demand other countries pay for massive public works projects on the border are a good thing.

Rise of the celebrity

Trump wouldn’t be the first celebrity turned politician to win a political post or even the White House. In recent year’s Hollywood movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger won California’s 2003 re-call election to become governor and former wrestler and actor Jesse Ventura won election as governor of Minnesota in 1998.

Part of Trump’s success on a macro-level is attached to celebrity worship, said Trey Grayson who formerly served as the director of the Harvard Institute of Politics and Kentucky Secretary of State.

“An important element is celebritization of American pop culture in politics,” said Grayson, who is now the president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. “Through reality television, social media and 24/7 news cycles our politicians can have their own brands. They can communicate without a media filter.”

Trump has been a household name since the 1980’s, and Grayson remarked that he remembers writing a book report on ‘The Art of the Deal,’ Trump’s memoir and book of business advice.

More recently, the real estate mogul’s career has been less about the buildings and more about the celebrity image and licensing his name — that name identification something all politicians covet. With identification as a winning businessman Trump has been able to leverage support as a problem solving outsider.

A troubling nominee for McConnell

A concern for McConnell, Grayson said is current polling which shows Trump losing to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in November.

“It looks like he’s dividing the party (in the polls) and that’s not how you get a guy like Rob Portman re-elected in Ohio when he’s likely to run against the former governor,” Grayson said. “That’s not how you get a guy like Chuck Grassley re-elected in Iowa when he just got a tougher opponent. It’s not how you get Kelly Ayotte re-elected for the very first time in New Hampshire when she’s running against a two term governor.”

“I think, McConnell, as the Republican Senate leader his first priority is keeping the Republicans in control of the Senate…a strong presidential candidate helps that — a weak presidential candidate hurts that,” he continued.

McConnell was rebuked by voters during Kentucky’s Republican presidential caucus when they backed Trump and Cruz over Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who had a mountain of establishment support behind him in the commonwealth.

Even McConnell’s own endorsement likely wouldn’t have been enough to propel Rubio to ascendancy. In 2010, Kentucky voters elected current U.S. Sen. Rand Paul even though McConnell, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and others publicly endorsed Grayson in the Senate primary.

“Mitch McConnell has to accept Donald Trump. And he ought to be used to it, because he accepted Rand Paul and (Governor) Matt Bevin,” Democratic consultant Matt Erwin said.

The GOP and McConnell may not have set out to create the anti-politician, but now that Trump is here and leading the race it will be up to people like McConnell to figure out a way to stop him or potentially to lose the power he’s worked so hard to secure.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics, the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the connection between the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape and a Kentucky hacker whose push for further investigation could put him in federal prison. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@charter.com.

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