Mitch McConnell’s No. 1 priority is Mitch McConnell
There can only be one number one. | AP

“He’s got more nerve than Dick Tracy,” my grandmother would say of a particularly shameless soul. (Okay, young folks, Tracy was a famous funny pages cop.) Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell keeps reminding me of my grandmother’s observation. But the minority leader’s calculated Road to Damascus conversion on Judge Merrick Garland might be his most cynical ploy.

McConnell said he supported Garland for attorney general “because of his long reputation as a straight-shooter and legal expert.” I’d say “straight-shooter” tops the list of Mitch McConnell antonyms.

In March 2016, after far-right-wing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, wanted the moderate Garland to replace him. Then-Majority Leader McConnell torpedoed the nomination, arguing that because it was an election year, the next president should pick Scalia’s successor.

Last Sept. 26, with the election little over a month away, Republican President Donald Trump chose Professor Amy Coney Barrett, another reactionary, to succeed the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McConnell, Trump’s top toady on Capitol Hill, hastened her to confirmation at warp speed.

Mahatma Gandhi put “politics without principles” on his list of “seven social sins.” McConnell is someone who divorced himself from principled politics when he first ran for the Senate in 1984.

He put out a TV ad that showed bloodhounds looking for incumbent Democratic Sen. Dee Huddleston. The ad was concocted by Roger Ailes, a right-wing Republican media consultant who became the head of Fox News, the GOP propaganda ministry.

The ad falsely claimed that Huddleston skipped a slew of Senate votes to make money off political speechmaking.

“The charge that Huddleston was playing widespread hooky was, as Newsweek noted at the time, ‘baseless,’: Huddleston was present for 94 percent of votes,” journalist Alec MacGillis wrote in his 2014 book, The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. 

“At some point along the way, Mitch McConnell decided that his own longevity in Washington trumped all—that he would even be willing to feed the public’s disillusionment with its elected leaders if it would increase his and his party’s odds of success at the polls,” MacGillis added.

“Like his every conscious act, [McConnell’s vote for Garland for AG]…is calculated to serve his own interests,” said former Louisville Courier-Journal Editor David Hawpe, a Kentucky Journalism Hall of Famer. “It’s in part an attempt to deflect criticism of his earlier mistreatment of Garland and his savaging of the confirmation process. I assume he didn’t have the votes to stop Garland, or he would have done it.”

Fellow Bluegrass State Journalism Hall of Fame member Bill Straub agrees. “McConnell certainly would have come out against Garland if he had found a reason,” said Straub, a retired Frankfort and Washington journalist who writes a column for Kentucky Forward and Northern Kentucky Tribune online.

“Now that he’s in the minority, he wants bygones to be bygones. But as we all know, Mitch McConnell is always on top of Mitch McConnell’s list. Then it’s the Republican party and then maybe it’s the country. He hasn’t shown anything toward that third phase.

Straub also agreed that Trump’s priorities were in the same order. “McConnell and Trump are a mirror image of each other. That was the interesting thing about the dynamics between McConnell and Trump: Trump thought he was taking advantage of McConnell and McConnell thought he was taking advantage of Trump.”

They’d never admit it, of course. But Trump and McConnell think that candidates who put country ahead of party and personal gain are suckers and losers.

They preach populism but practice social Darwinism. Both are bare-knucks union busters who believe that if you’re poor, it’s your fault; that the purpose of government is to enrich the already rich and that only rich white lives matter.

“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time,” Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, supposedly said. (The current GOP looks more like the party of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.)

Nationwide, more than 81 million voters saw through Trump’s con last November and elected Biden. But McConnell’s grift is still hitting on all eight cylinders in Kentucky, big-time. He piled up another landslide, collecting nearly 58% of the vote and carrying 117 of our 120 counties. (Trump won 118 Bluegrass State counties and pocketed a tad more than 62% of ballots cast.)

Anyway, McConnell has never been personally popular with the homefolks. He may be the state’s longest-tenured senator, but he’ll never be beloved like a Henry Clay, Alben Barkley, John Sherman Cooper, or Wendell Ford.

He probably doesn’t care.

“There are, in fact, so many examples of McConnell’s skullduggery that the testimony could fill volumes,” Straub wrote in a post-election column. “Obviously, many people around the country, whether it be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or whatever, are aghast and wondering how such a misanthrope has managed to scratch his way to the top of the Republican heap.”

I wish I had a dollar for every time a Blue State liberal friend has asked me how McConnell keeps getting elected. The next time one phones, texts, or emails me, I’m going to quote more of Straub:

“Any number of rational answers can be rightfully considered. But in this instance, stealing a notion from the great Conan Doyle, the reason can be found hiding in plain sight: Mitch simply doesn’t give a rat’s behind about what you or anyone else thinks.

“And he doesn’t have to. It’s his indifference to right and wrong, and his willingness to play Snidely Whiplash, that has ironically provided him with the keys to the kingdom.” Someone like McConnell could simply not care less. “He knows that Kentucky voters,” Straub writes, “with a long history of voting against their own self-interest, will return him to the Senate every six years. They’re not doing it because of his George Clooney good looks or his sparkling personality, they do it because he rails against abortion and promises folks they can keep their guns—even buy more—regardless of caliber or firepower.

“It’s not hard to figure out. He’s been doing it since 1984.”

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author. A version of this article also appeared in Forward Kentucky.


Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.