The Top Republican Who's AWOL on Syria

McConnell Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(Update: Call off the dogs! Soon after I wrote this, McConnell came in from the cold and announced his opposition to a Syria strike. He’ll vote “no.” This is, on the one hand, noteworthy because he’s the only one of the “Big Four” leaders in Congress to do so. But politically, it makes sense. He’ll soon face voters, who oppose a strike by a wide margin.)

Of all the politicians reluctant to vote on attacking Syria, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may be at the top of the list. He’s the only congressional leader of either party who has not yet weighed in. The rest all support an attack.

McConnell’s silence is no mystery: He’s up for reelection next year, he’s pretty unpopular, and he has to contend with both a GOP primary challenger on his right, Matt Bevin, and a popular Democrat on his left, Alison Lundergan Grimes, whom he’ll face in the general election. On the matter of Syria, Bevin is the dove and Grimes the hawk, which only scrambles the politics further.

So at a time when every media organization is running whip counts as to which legislators stand where, McConnell—no doubt with an eye toward self-preservation—has made himself scarce. About all he’s said came right after Obama briefed congressional leaders last week: ”Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done—and can be accomplished—in Syria and the region.” He plans to announce his position next week.

There’s no small irony in McConnell going AWOL at a critical moment because, as political junkies will recall, he was first elected to the Senate in 1984 after directing precisely this charge against the Democratic incumbent, Dee Huddleston. In fact, McConnell immortalized the attack in one of the most famous political ads of all time (“Bloodhounds”), which was directed by Roger Ailes, today the impresario of Fox News. Maybe one or both McConnell’s opponents should revive it:

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