But ultimately, Cruz’s defection is emblematic of McConnell’s loosening grip on a fraying Republican Party, and it’s already costing him dearly.
At a Saturday night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Donald Trump lit into McConnell over the issue.
“To think we had 11 Republicans go along with an extension. Headed up by Mitch McConnell, can you believe that?” Trump said of the debt ceiling deal. “And you know what it does? It gives the Democrats more time, two months, gives them more time to figure it out. They can now have two more months to figure it out how to screw us, okay.”
At the same rally, Trump blessed the reelection bid of 88-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa who, despite being a longtime McConnell ally, half-graciously accepted Trump’s endorsement as a transactional political imperative.
“If I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person that’s got 91% of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart,” Grassley mused to the crowd. “I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement.”
In other words, by Jove, if this is what I gotta do, I’ll do it. And it’s clearly what Grassley had to do because Trump’s endorsement carries far more sway with the GOP base than McConnell’s money does.
But Trump wasn’t the only Republican blasting McConnell’s debt ceiling cave.
“In the game of chicken, Chuck Schumer won,” Cruz charged from the Senate floor, calling the deal a “strategic mistake by our leadership.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a steadfast Trump ally, railed against McConnell’s deal as “a complete capitulation,” wondering “why the hell” Republicans would make it possible for Democrats to raise the debt limit through regular order rather than forcing them to use reconciliation.
Pouring salt on the wound, Graham joined Fox News that evening to lament the vote.
“Well, we screwed up. For two months, we promised our base and the American people that we would not help the Democratic Party raise the debt ceiling so they could spend $3.5 to $5 trillion through reconciliation,” Graham said. “We shot ourselves in the foot tonight, but we will revisit this issue in December.”
In McConnell’s retelling of the debt ceiling tale, he “stepped up” to save the day because Democrats had refused to act on their own. In actuality, he simply got outplayed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Joe Biden.
But overall, McConnell’s stock is depreciating. Trump is breathing down his neck at every turn. He’s got an increasingly recalcitrant caucus. And the fundraising muscle that he has flexed for years to buy the loyalty of GOP lawmakers is being undercut by the sheer force of Trump’s endorsement within the GOP base.
The truth of the matter is, the people really running the Republican Party right now are all the rage-filled GOP voters hungry to claw out the eyes of any perceived traitor. They have no use for McConnell—an establishment sell-out, in their view. But they still have a great deal of affection for Trump, who will gladly tell them whatever they want to hear to maintain his celebrity status.
And for Trump, a wounded McConnell with declining influence is easy pickings. McConnell isn’t in immediate danger of losing his Senate leadership post because no one in his current caucus has the desire or the power to challenge him for it. But McConnell’s stature as GOP leader belies his waning power. McConnell has surely hit his lowest moment since assuming leadership of the GOP caucus in 2006.
And regardless of whether Republicans manage to regain control of the upper chamber next year, McConnell’s caucus will be even further to the right of him and more Trump-centric than it is right now.
So much for Trump being a “fading brand,” as McConnell put it.