Call him “Cocaine Mitch,” and Mitch McConnell launches a merchandising empire. Call him “Moscow Mitch,” and, well … look out. The Senate Majority Leader took the Washington Post to the woodshed yesterday after columnist Dana Milbank accused him of disloyalty. McConnell had blocked a House bill for election-security spending that had passed with one Republican vote, and a new, dishonest media and Democratic talking point was born, McConnell shot back:
The Washington Post huffed back that “McCarthyism” was a ridiculous characterization for legitimate criticism:
“I was called unpatriotic, ‘un-American’ and essentially treasonous by a couple of left-wing pundits on the basis of boldfaced lies,” McConnell complained Monday. “I was accused of ‘aiding and abetting’ the very man I’ve singled out as our adversary and opposed for nearly 20 years: Vladimir Putin.”
The senator added: “This modern-day McCarthyism was pushed by big-time outlets. The smear that I am, quote, a ‘Russian asset’ ran in the opinion pages of The Washington Post.”
Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor, defended Milbank’s column and criticized the GOP leader for invoking McCarthyism.
“Dana Milbank’s column was a legitimate exercise in commentary, making the argument that Sen. McConnell’s blocking of elections-security legislation will harm the United States and work to Russia’s advantage. Of course it’s equally legitimate for Mr. McConnell to express a contrary view, but the Milbank argument has nothing to do with McCarthyism,” Hiatt said in a statement.
Uh, perhaps Hiatt needs to review exactly what McCarthyism is. Its original form was the smearing of public officials as Russian assets for their political views, part of a “Red scare” that had some basis in fact but quickly ran out of control and was exploited for sheer political gain. That’s a much better description of what Milbank and the WaPo did with that column than Milbank’s description of McConnell as a “Russian asset” for opposing a partisan bill on election security. Milbank doesn’t even consider that there were legitimate for McConnell’s opposition to the bills — he just jumps to the conclusion that McConnell’s failure to adopt another political position is driven by treason or disloyalty without providing any proof of either. That is, in fact, classic McCarthyism, right down to the Russian roots of it.
It helps to get the context of the bill McConnell blocked to grasp the cheap shot Milbank leveled. Rich Lowry provides that missing context at the New York Post, which involves traditional Republican opposition to federal control of elections. Even beyond the significant federalist issues involved, McConnell and other Republicans believe that a distributed system of 50 separate elections makes it tougher for outsiders to hack:
One of the Democratic bills would mandate the use of paper ballots as a fail-safe against hacking. This may well be the best practice going forward, but running elections is the responsibility of states and localities, not the federal government. As supporters of traditional state prerogatives, Republicans could be expected to oppose the bill, and sure enough, it only got one Republican vote when it passed the House.
Insisting the GOP-held Senate unanimously pass Dem legislation is manifestly absurd.
Another bill would require campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance, a superficially appealing idea. Yet writing it into legislation is easier said than done. The more comprehensive such a bill is, the more likely it is to sweep up minor and innocent interactions that fall far short of the infamous Trump Tower meeting (that itself, it’s worth remembering, came to nothing.)
There is no need to reach for extravagant explanations for why McConnell would oppose these bills (he’s a tool of the Kremlin! he hopes his Moscow minders will put Trump over the top in 2020!).
McConnell has an extensive record as an opponent of federal activism and poorly drafted campaign-reform bills with unintended consequences.
As Lowry explains, unanimous consent requests are usually reserved for truly non-controversial bills that already have or can expect unanimous support. Democrats were playing games with both bills, and the timing was exquisite: Robert Mueller was appearing before two House committees to talk in part about election security. Democrats wanted to embarrass Republicans, which is also part of the game-playing on Capitol Hill. However, only a partisan media hack like Milbank would actually buy that, and only Hiatt would green-light a clearly McCarthyist headline and attack.
With that being said, though, McConnell did get outplayed. He should have seen this coming and had a GOP alternative ready to put up for a unanimous-consent vote. After all, the House has been working on this for several weeks now, so it’s not exactly a surprise. McConnell, who usually can play this game with the best of them, dropped the ball in this scrimmage.