This has been a very busy weekend, and during the week increasing amounts of my time and nervous energy have gone into a zoning battle with my home town that I am fighting along with the co-owner of our condo. The issue is parking, and town officials are attempting to exercise extraordinary arbitrary power to take some of ours away--why I do not know. I also participated in a conference in Dallas, about which more later, and I'm preparing to join in an online conference on Watergate early next month. On top of all that, I started a piece here this morning, wrote a few paragraphs, and decided that I didn't like it. So I'm going to let someone else do most of the work this week.
That someone is Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. He has done a lot to make partisanship worse in this country and has shown very little respect for the last two Democratic presidents. He also made a very historic mistake last January when he decided not to round up enough Republican votes to convict Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors and eliminate the possibility of his making another presidential run. Yet last week, he suddenly decided to step into the shoes of Arthur Vandenberg, the conservative Republican Senate heavyweight of the late 1940s who cast key votes for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall plan. McConnell gave an interview to a New York Times reporter which I actually enjoyed reading, and I am going to share it for non-commercial use only. The reporter begins by asking about the trip that McConnell and several other senators made to Europe.
Why did you decide to make the trip to Europe last weekend?
One was to try to convey to the Europeans that skepticism about NATO itself, expressed by the previous president, was not the view of Republicans in the Senate. And I also was trying to minimize the vote against the package in my own party.
We have sort of an isolationist wing, and I think some of the Trump supporters are sort of linked up with the isolationists — a lot of talk out in the primaries about this sort of thing. And I felt this would help diminish the number of votes against the package. I think that worked out well.
I’d had a private dinner with the president of Finland back in March, right after the invasion, so we’d sort of developed a relationship. So we decided to head up to Stockholm and Helsinki. These are incredibly important admissions to NATO. They both have great militaries. They’re both independent of Russian energy. If anybody’s ready to be a part of NATO, these two countries are, so it was exciting to be there.
I think the trip helped convince Europeans that Republicans are the way we used to be on NATO.
Did you personally lobby individual senators to try to allay some of their concerns about the aid bill?
I certainly was talking about it for the last two weeks to my own colleagues. I said, No. 1, this is a pittance compared to the $2 trillion the Democrats dumped on the economy last year, producing 40-year-high inflation. If ever there were a reason where for an expenditure of this amount, this is it. And if the Russians succeeded, it would cost us a lot more. So yes, I was arguing for support for the package.
There are not many things we agree with this administration on. And that’s been pretty widely on display the last year and a half. I thought they were a little bit slow to get started, a little bit too intimidated by the thought of provoking the Russians, and we did criticize the slowness. However, I think they’ve stepped up their game. I think they are fully engaged. And I think the administration shares my view that the outcome of this ought to be victory.
What’s the definition of victory? I can tell you that [President Volodymyr] Zelensky [of Ukraine] believes victory is getting his country back. All of it.
The Ukrainians are trying to get on offense. And I believe this weapons package is crafted in such a way to give them what they need now, not only to win the ground war, but hopefully to have some impact on getting the Odessa port back open again, because the absence of Ukrainian food is going to resonate throughout the Middle East and Africa as well.
Our intelligence community says they believe that President [Vladimir V.] Putin [of Russia] is counting on American resolve flagging. As the conflict drags on, do you think it’s going to be harder to maintain support from Republicans for sending aid to Ukraine?
Well, we’ll see how much pain he can sustain. All indications are, they’re sustaining significantly more pain than we are. He’s counting on us kind of running out of interest and losing steam, not having a staying power — and I think he’s wrong about that. And I think he’s underestimating the amount of pain he’s getting.
You probably can’t fool the Russian people, like the mothers of the people who’ve been killed and maimed. They lost more people in the first two weeks of this war than we lost in Afghanistan plus Iraq in 20 years. We’ll see how long he can sustain it.
You’ve noted that isolationism among Republicans is nothing new. But does what we’re currently seeing in some corners of your party feel different or more dangerous to you than what we’ve seen in the past?
I don’t feel it’s dangerous. You know, I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve watched a lot of campaign rhetoric that seems to disappear once you’re sworn in, and you actually are responsible for governing and confronted with the facts and reality. So I have a tendency not to get overexcited about what A or B may be saying in some primary somewhere in America. I think this is one of those issues where, right and wrong — it’s pretty clear.
And of course, the best salesman against isolationism in America is President Zelensky. As you heard others say, Winston Churchill in a T-shirt. He’s an inspiration, not only to his own people, but to us as well.
For a lot of younger people in America, this is the first time they’ve ever seen a clear battle between right and wrong. To a lot of people, Afghanistan was murky. Iraq was murky. It just didn’t seem like a clear choice. I thought both those wars were necessary, by the way, but it was confusing to people. I don’t think anybody’s confused about this.
We’ve seen the bodies, we’ve seen the destroyed buildings. I don’t think anybody’s confused about who the bad guys are and who the good guys are, and whether or not America really ought to play that kind of role it has traditionally since World War II: being the leader of the free world in opposition to this kind of authoritarianism.
How important do you think the China factor was in all of this?
Huge. You’ve got both the prime minister of Japan and the defense minister of Japan saying if you want to push back against the Chinese, the single most important thing to do is beat Putin in Ukraine. That’s from the Japanese, whose biggest worry is not Putin but Xi [Jinping, China’s leader].
Senator Ted Cruz’s vote for the aid bill was interesting. He gave a very long speech explaining why, and one of the reasons was to counter China.
It was an excellent speech, I thought. And since he is among our most conservative members, I thought it was courageous and correct for him to say what he did, to people who follow him carefully. And in fact, I mentioned to him today, I thought it was really excellently crafted and an important message for someone like him to say. He’s clearly chosen a different path from another of our members who has presidential aspirations.
You said it was courageous — why?
Well, if you think of the brand of Republicans that you would typically think Senator Cruz would appeal to, this is not what they want to hear. That’s why I applied the word “courage” to it, because I think he was educating his supporters rather than mirroring them.
You seem confident that the Senate will ratify adding Sweden and Finland to NATO. Is there any concern about the level of risk that would entail for the United States and our allies, particularly given that Finland has 800 miles of shared border with Russia?
Did you read or hear about what the Finns did to the Russians in 1939? They had a hell of a war. The Soviets tried to take over Finland, and the Finns fought them to a draw.
I don’t think the Russians want to mess with the Finns. They’ve got a great military; they already spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Sweden will be up to 2 percent shortly but already has a good military. So I’m not worried about it.
Their concern was, how long will it take for us to ratify? Chuck [Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader] feels the same way I do: We’re trying to expedite this process and get this treaty or treaties — however they decide to send it up to us — approved as quickly as possible.
McConnell exaggerated Finland's 1939-40 success somewhat. The Finns did brilliantly in the early stages of the campaign, inflicting enormous casualties, but in the spring the Russians broke through their main defense line and forced them to surrender about 1/3 of their territory, which they regained only temporarily after Hitler attacked the Soviets the next year and they joined in. That's my only quibble about the interview.
I am sure some readers are angry at me for giving McConnell any credibility at all. As it happens, I always enjoy finding a point of agreement with some one who is almost always opposed to what I believe. Finding such issues may be the only way that we can get our politics out of the mess that they are in. Five years older even than I, McConnell still remembers Cold War bipartisan foreign policy. And some bipartisanship is better than none.