Commentary: McConnell shows smart way to deal with Trump

Two top Republican congressional leaders, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Conference Chair Elizabeth Cheney both strongly criticized former Pres. Donald Trump over his role in the riot at the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6, and for his refusal to accept the 2020 election outcome. Neither has backed off that criticism.

Both politicians have been (and continue to be) harshly criticized by Trump. He calls them names, calls them weak, and questioned their leadership roles.

Today, McConnell remains Senate minority leader. He is the most powerful Republican in the country. Cheney, on the other hand, was unceremoniously dumped from her position as conference chair by an overwhelming vote of her fellow GOP House members.  

So what made the difference? Why is McConnell riding high, leading congressional opposition to many Biden administration policies, while Cheney was booted from her powerful position?

It wasn’t because GOP senators are more reasonable than GOP House members. In fact, a lot of reasonable, moderate House members, like Utah Congressman John Curtis, voted to remove Cheney.

It wasn’t simply because Cheney doesn’t like Trump and criticized him over the Jan. 6 riot and his continued claims that the election was stolen. In fact, well after Cheney slammed Trump after Jan. 6, her GOP conference gave her a strong vote of confidence and retained her as conference chair.

The difference is that while everyone knows there’s no love lost between McConnell and Trump, McConnell has remained a team player with his GOP caucus and has mostly ignored Trump, choosing to focus on policy. When asked, McConnell makes it clear that his opinion of Trump hasn’t changed. But he doesn’t go out of his way to criticize Trump, even when Trump attacks him. He’s smart enough not to rise to Trump’s bait and give the former president more visibility and notoriety.

Cheney, on the other hand, has been obsessed with Trump. She can’t leave him alone. Trump issues several inflammatory statements a day, many of referring to the lost election. Cheney hasn’t been able to restrain from taking on Trump (which is what he wants). She also has made no attempt to understand or reach out to Trump supporters (without which the GOP can’t win).

Most Republicans want to move on from Trump (me among them). But Republican leaders also understand the importance of keeping Trump’s supporters in the GOP tent, motivated to vote. The best way forward is to ignore Trump while focusing on conservative policies and principles. Picking big, public fights with Trump only encourages him and gives him more media play. It’s counterproductive. 

Cheney’s Trump obsession was hurting her conference and did not reflect the views and expectations of those she was supposed to be leading. Sure, a leader can attempt, within reason, to bring her followers to her point of view. But when it’s very clear the followers have no interest in being as vocal and dogmatic as the leader, then it’s time for the leader to be replaced.

It wouldn’t matter if Cheney was chair of her House caucus or president of the local Kiwanis club. She lost the confidence of those she was supposed to lead. She was headed is a much different direction than they were.

Cheney and McConnell both dislike Trump, and Trump crudely disparages both of them. McConnell has been smart about navigating the Trump factor. Cheney hasn’t been.