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Utter Failure of Leadership – Senator Mitch McConnell

It is common political knowledge that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s primary interest is and has always been power, getting it and holding onto it. Now, we have an inside look at what he was thinking in the days after Trump’s insurrection and attack on the nation’s Capitol as described in Rachael Bade’s and Karoun Demirjian’s new book “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump.”

It is debatable, to be sure, to suggest (as the book’s title seems to do) that the Democrats botched the impeachment. I disagree. They made the case powerfully against Trump. It was the Republicans fear of Trump that ultimately gave him a pass. That said, Politico describes what McConnell was thinking:

“’Unchecked’ explores how the longtime Republican leader came much closer than originally reported to backing Trump’s conviction after the January 6 Capitol insurrection — and even got sandbagged by his own members into making a decision on the issue before he was ready. McConnell relished the opportunity to slam the door shut on the controversial former president’s political career, and inside his Capitol office suite, he intensively debated the question with his own staff…But while McConnell was ready to be done with Trump, his party, it seemed, was not. To his chagrin, a large chunk of his members were once again coalescing around the former president. And they were about to put him in a bind….That afternoon, fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul would force a vote on the constitutionality of convicting a former president — short-circuiting McConnell’s own deliberations. While Trump loyalists had seized on the suggestion that a former president simply could not be impeached and convicted, McConnell was not so sure. He argued with one of his most trusted aides about why the Founders would explicitly allow Congress to bar an impeached official from future office yet reserve that power only for current officials…McConnell had never led such a rebellion [against a fellow Republican]. And that day, he wasn’t sure he was up to the task.”

Is the fact that McConnell was troubled as he spoke on the Senate floor on February 13, 2021 enough? See:

Hardly. To the contrary. McConnell’s failure of leadership enabled Trump to continue to spread throughout his base a toxic undermining of American elections and our democratic institutions and to give Trump the right to run for President again in 2024. McConnell’s failure to lead Senate Republicans shines a light on what great leadership really means. Except for Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger in the House and Mitt Romney in the first Impeachment trial, along with a small handful of Republican members who voted to convict Trump in the second Impeachment trial, the entire Republican Party failed in its duty to the Constitution and the American people.

Great leadership requires not just vision and high moral rectitude, but the love of truth and a sacred commitment to further the common good. There are times when all leaders must stand up against the crowd, take a political risk knowing that they can lose everything, power, position, and the respect of their followers. Great leaders, however, bear the responsibility to act on behalf of the best interests of the public and to set a high moral standard for themselves and their colleagues.

I understand and even sympathize that in the current environment of the Trump-Republican Party that it is very difficult for Members of Congress and the Senate to oppose the mob and risk being expelled from the “tribe/cult.” Anyone who did so was defeated in Republican primaries this year or decided not to stand for re-election knowing that they would be defeated if they spoke their minds. Those few who took public stands against Trump and election denial were condemned,  threatened, and excommunicated from a political community they cherished.

Effective leadership is not just about saying the right thing at the right time and then following up with consistent action. It is also about organizing others to follow you. Senator McConnell utterly failed to do this when he could have done so with enough colleagues to make a difference in the outcome of the Impeachment process.

Martin Luther King put it well when he said: “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

Congressman John Lewis said: “You must be headlights and not tail-lights.”

Uri Avneri, a leader of the Israeli peace movement, said: “If you say something outside the consensus, you create enemies. The less you say, the less trouble. That is a basic political truism. But it is not the stuff great leaders are made of.”

President Gerald Ford said: “In the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity`s approval.”

McConnell did none of that. Rather, he did as the 19th Century French politician, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, said: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

Leaders lead. The pursuit of popularity and power does not a leader make. There will always come a time when leadership means standing up courageously against the crowd, without hesitation, knowing that one’s cause is right, moral, and just.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks characterized truly great leaders as those who “combine realism with idealism, subordinate politics to ethics, power to responsibility, and pragmatism to the demands of conscience…[Great leaders] are always exposed to prophetic critique to remind themselves of transcendent standards and ultimate aims.”

Consequently, it matters little that Mitch McConnell suffered pangs of conscience when deciding to vote against the conviction of Donald Trump. What matters is that he failed to do so when he knew and understood that Trump had engaged in treasonous behavior in his designing and leading the insurrection against American democracy.

Liz Cheney put it right as she addressed her Republican colleagues in the January 6 hearings: “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

McConnell, for all the power he wields, is no leader. His example is as bad as all Republicans in Congress who failed to do their duty to uphold the rule of law and the US Constitution.

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and immediate past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the newly created Union for Reform Judaism's Israel and Reform Zionism Committee (IRZC). John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of two books - “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing Company, 2017) and "Why Israel [and its Future] Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019). Both are available at Amazon.com. John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren.
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