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McConnell's silence on Syria - what effect on GOP primary?

(Clinton, KY) – The three way contest for US Senate continues to make front page news across the nation. Recent stories on Yahoo! News and Huffington Post illustrate the wide spread appeal of the Bluegrass state race that is more than a year away. 

Over the August break (and isn’t it so very European of our solons to take a whole month off in the summer!), some representatives, (not a majority of Kentucky’s delegation), actually conduct town hall meetings. Town hall meetings bring out those with SOMETHING TO SAY to their elected representative and they say it loudly and on camera.

The topic this year is Syria and the prospect of American intervention. It’s a subject that brings up unhappy old memories of American presidents being less than *cough* forthright on the real reasons for ventures on foreign soil. Think Jack Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush in the modern era. Those of you who believe Clinton went into Bosnia to distract from the sex scandal that tainted his second administration, add Bill here (we do not).  Then Remember the Maine, recall the subjugation of Hawaii, the Philippines and any small country south of the border capable of growing bananas.

So when an American President with a single digit popularity rating among Republicans says “trust me and give me the green light to bomb a country that most Americans can’t locate on a globe” – things get a bit rowdy on the right. They aren’t much calmer on the left as peace activists with a long history of opposing American gunboat diplomacy believe that their guy is in the same boat with those other guys who led us into “limited” wars.

President Obama has presented Congress with a pretty conundrum: vote for a military strike their constituents oppose by, according to Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, 400-1 or defeat the resolution and be pilloried when the Syrian government sprays sarin gas on school children just in time for the evening news.  There are no good answers and no rocks to hide under.

If it weren’t so awful, it would be delicious. The Congress that whined almost continuously for most of Obama’s tenure that he didn’t consult them now has the consultation from hell on its hands. One has to admire the beauty of the trap as one hastens to recognize that the President is not making friends on the Hill for dropping this one in their well tailored laps.

One has to wonder if the old adage about it being easier to get forgiveness than permission might apply to the Syrian missile strike.  Honesty would force one to admit that Mr. Obama has no hope of getting either from his opponents in Congress.

What does Syria have to do with a Senate race in an economically poor and usually ignored state smack in the middle of flyover country? The only time the coasts think about Kentucky is on the first Saturday in May or possibly going for fried chicken in a red and white paper barrel (and even that has abbreviated Kentucky into oblivion as merely the K in “KFC”).

What this has to do with Kentucky is that the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate is nowhere to be found in the debate over Syria. While junior Senator Rand Paul makes headlines for sparring with the Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator Mitch McConnell is keeping a low profile.

Gossips around Washington whisper that Arizona Senator John McCain has usurped McConnell’s leadership role. Certainly, if sound bites and television appearances counted as votes, McCain would be the minority leader.

Senator McConnell has to decide whether to stand with the majority of his constituents and oppose the President or to agree with House GOP leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor who support a limited attack.  Our guess is that he will oppose the President on the theory that a Republican never loses by opposing a Democratic president. It also takes an issue off the tea party table. Tea party libertarian Matt Bevin is not in favor of more US involvement in the Middle East (following Rand Paul).

And we come to the Kentucky connection: McConnell seems not to be taking his primary opponent, Bevin, seriously. That may turn out to be a fatal error on McConnell’s part. Bevin, in an interview with Yahoo News (don’t laugh – lots of folks use Yahoo and yes, read their news site) said that he is convinced that the love match between McConnell and Paul is nonexistent.

Well. Duh.

The truth is that Paul does not need McConnell like McConnell needs Paul. And they both know it. So if Paul says no to an attack on Syria, it will be big news if McConnell nay says him.

The bottom line is that Mitch McConnell has never had a serious primary opponent (or at least not since he was elected over Democrat Dee Huddleston ). McConnell is correctly known as the father of the modern Kentucky GOP. He brought the Republican Party to Kentucky, especially to Western Kentucky which is no longer the Gibraltar of the West for the Dems, but their soft, vulnerable underbelly.  McConnell has never had to navigate through opponents on his side of the fence.

McConnell’s advantage in money is daunting. But well heeled candidates have lost before. In a primary, the faithful and only the faithful turn out.

In Kentucky, the faithful look to the tea party and Rand Paul. If Bevin can drive a wedge between Paul and McConnell or at least paint the senior senator as a Washington kind of guy, McConnell will be in trouble months before he faces the woman his supporters have referred to as “an empty dress.”

We’ll save the empty dress thing for another day. Right now, Mitch McConnell has a race to run against a man who sounds as cocky as a young Mitch McConnell once did asking where Dee Huddleston was in that now iconic political ad that put him in the US Senate.



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