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Opinion Mitch McConnell goes after the wrong president

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has bestirred himself, finally, to speak out against a president whose behavior has gone too far. Unfortunately, he went after the wrong president.

A sense of shame is not in the McConnell playbook. After all, this is the man who denied even a hearing to Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland — and now proclaims his intention to fill a high court vacancy if one arises before the election.

For years, McConnell has rigorously suppressed his evident distaste for Donald Trump in the service of the twin imperatives of what passes for his moral universe: retaining power and confirming judges. No presidential tweet, no presidential utterance, it seems, requires even the gentlest of pushbacks.

Now comes Barack Obama, with private comments critical of his successor, and McConnell is suddenly worked up about presidential decorum. Obama, in a certain-to-leak call with thousands of administration alumni, described the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster.” He lambasted the Justice Department’s move to dismiss charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn and said the “rule of law is at risk.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) incorrectly said on May 11 that Obama did not leave any sort of plan for something like the coronavirus outbreak. (Video: Team Trump Online)

This, of all things, was too much for McConnell to bear. “I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut,” McConnell told Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump in an online campaign event. It’s “understandable” if Obama “doesn’t like much” what the Trump administration is doing, McConnell allowed. “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.”

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Not — and I’m going to limit myself to the excesses of just the past few weeks here — the actual president baselessly suggesting that MSNBC anchor “Psycho Joe Scarborough” might have murdered an aide in his congressional office. “Did he get away with murder?” Trump tweeted. “Some people think so.”

Not accusing Obama of “illegal activities” or overseeing “the most corrupt administration in history,” feverishly tweeting the hashtag, “Obamagate!” Not lashing out at George W. Bush after the former president called for national unity to combat the pandemic: “He was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!”

Not Trump snapping at an Asian American reporter, Weijia Jiang of CBS News, who asked him a general question about his focus on the United States’ supposedly superior testing numbers — only to be greeted with an unmistakable jab at her ethnicity: “Maybe that’s a question you should ask China.”

You might have thought McConnell, whose wife, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan, would bristle at that one — but you would be underestimating McConnell’s capacity to sublimate ethics to political expediency.

If anything, Obama’s failure is not that he has criticized Trump too much — it is that he has spoken out too little, given the excesses of this president. If anything, his comments about Flynn and Trump’s handling of the pandemic were mild.

McConnell is correct in noting that it has been customary in recent years for former presidents not to explicitly criticize their successors. “Generally former presidents just don’t do that,” he said. Obama himself, reentering the political fray in advance of the 2018 midterms, said he had been “intent on following a wise American tradition of ex-presidents gracefully exiting the political stage.”

But nothing about this president is customary, and his egregious behavior in office amply justifies a departure from the norm. By one count, Trump has tweeted well over 400 attacks on Obama during his presidency. In the face of those juvenile provocations, Obama didn’t respond in kind.

That made sense. Obama has little to gain by mud-wrestling with Trump over whether he had the “wires tapped” in Trump Tower or whether his book deal should be investigated. He can leave to others substantive defenses in the face of Trump attacks on things such as the Affordable Care Act and the Iran nuclear deal, or whether the Obama administration did enough to prepare for a pandemic.

But there are moments that cry out for a presidential voice — the voice of a real president, with moral authority and dignity. Moments such as Charlottesville, when the sitting president praised “very fine people on both sides.” Moments such as the sitting president’s statement that four nonwhite Democratic congresswomen should “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came.”

In both instances, Obama responded with deliberate and perhaps excessive understatement, tweeting a quote from Nelson Mandela in the aftermath of Charlottesville, retweeting an op-ed from former advisers decrying Trump’s “go back” comments.

The power of the bully pulpit necessarily fades when its occupant leaves office, and Obama has strategically conserved the resource of the attention he can draw, saving it for the occasions that matter — in particular, for elections. Kicking off a campaign for Democrats in September 2018, Obama assailed Trump as a “threat to our democracy.” Now, with voters choosing between a Trump second term and electing Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, is the time for Obama to let it rip.

Because speaking truth about this dangerous president is not classless. It is compulsory — for all of us, not least his predecessor.

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