In the Republican Party of Donald Trump, the rule is that if the president says “jump,” the overwhelming majority of the GOP—including leadership—not only says “how high?”, but also “off which cliff?”
So it is perhaps unsurprising that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who had until Tuesday steadfastly refused to bring a criminal justice reform bill backed by Trump to the floor, should ultimately have gotten on board with it and agreed to move it.
Not that it was easy getting here, though. Up until the last minute, McConnell and Cornyn’s behavior would have any casual observer thinking this legislation was a top policy priority of former President Obama, George Soros, or some other liberal villain loathed by conservatives, so vigorously did McConnell and Cornyn say “no.”
Nor was their behavior easily explicable: Cornyn claimed until the minute a vote was announced that it “[didn’t] have the votes,” with his team signaling to the Hill that an official whip count put its level of support among Republicans at a mere 16 “yes” votes. But Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a key backer of the legislation, put the number of GOP supporters at 27 when Cornyn claimed 16. Late last week, Sens. Ted Cruz and Thom Tillis announced their support following changes to the legislation. About the only outspoken opponent of the bill appeared to be the Weekly Standard-beloved (but otherwise relatively non-influential) Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.
In fact, either 16 or 27 plus virtually all Democrats means the bill has plenty of votes (although it will be interesting to see if it gets a majority of Republican votes). But the bottom line is that criminal justice reform is on the front burner now not because of shifted whip counts, but rather because of the sheer politics of the thing. The fact is that there are several good reasons why McConnell likely got off his hump and is now committed to putting the bill up for a vote before the end of the year.
Let’s be blunt: Moving this bill will greatly satisfy not just Trump and the first daughter and son-in-law (important in government’s current construct), but also the still-heavy-hitting Rand Paul-Mike Lee-Ted Cruz troika, the big-donating Koch brothers, who strongly support the legislation, and groups that have evidenced clout with the base previously like FreedomWorks, which has also been calling for its passage. It will also have satisfied a bunch of law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and the National District Attorneys Association.
But most of all, the Senate voting on and passing criminal justice reform will bigly satisfy voters in the Trumpiest parts of America—those with significant white, rural, working-class populations that have been decimated by the opioid crisis. McConnell’s Kentucky is clearly among them—perhaps the biggest reason of all for his flip-flop on allowing a vote.
Nearly 63 percent of Kentucky voters voted for President Trump in 2016; the Bluegrass State is total #MAGA territory. As of 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Kentucky also had one of the nation’s highest rates of mortality due to drug overdose. And while it’s not one of the top states where the number of people dying from opioid overdoses continues to rise each year, the number of opioid overdose deaths in Kentucky still is going up—by about 12 percent.
Overlay these numbers and it’s clear that on McConnell’s home turf, a hell of a lot of his—and Trump’s—own voters literally are the addicts currently at risk of being sent to jail for long stretches; or if not them, their friends, family, and neighbors.
With broader public acceptance that drug addiction is an illness, perhaps even a disability, it’s hard to justify to your own voters not passing a bill that would allow them or those in their communities to reduce their sentences, provided they’re not major dealers.
It’s especially so when so many of these voters took a punt and voted for a totally-outside-the-box, radical presidential candidate in 2016 as a total desperation move to try to end misery in rural white America, and then carried on voting Republican down the ticket.
Set aside what you think about “law and order” as a theoretical virtue. It would be a straight-up kick in the teeth to these voters to not pass this bill. That would amount to ensuring the continuation of a situation in which we spend too much money imprisoning people who could have a shot at fixing their lives and returning to a semblance of normalcy. And these are Republicans’ people we’re talking about.
The fact is that it’s not rich, white liberals in San Francisco or Manhattan who are dying, overdosing, and accruing criminal records and prison time. It’s people driving pickup trucks, wearing hunting and construction-work gear and #MAGA hats. The people who, rightly or wrongly, feel discarded by modern America. Their lives are tough, and they and plenty of people surrounding them are self-medicating to cope with the pain.
For these people, real solutions to right-now, in-their-faces horror are needed—not just cable news praise of the president, promises of economic revitalization thanks to tax reform, or pledges of a better future thanks to judges who will rule on cases of potential cultural or economic importance in three or five or 10 years. Reducing addicts’ jail time—and other ongoing, attendant consequences of over-criminalization— is a tangible way of doing this.
McConnell may be wary of anything that could even hypothetically give rise to perceptions, anywhere, of going easy on criminals. But he’s also no dummy; he survived his last, hotly-contested Senate race by knowing his voters and making clear he was delivering for them. Yet again, with regard to this bill, McConnell has clearly surveyed the landscape, recognized the true strength of the forces backing the bill and the true utility of it—in both political and real-life, substantive terms. And he’s done the right thing.
For this he deserves credit. It’s unfortunate that he had to be dragged to his current position. Perhaps one of the risks with positioning yourself as the chief obstructionist for a full eight years of the other party’s time in the White House is you become too acclimated to saying “no” and allowing inertia to remain the dominant force where policy-making is concerned. In this instance, McConnell should get a carrot, not a stick, from his party and frankly the country as a whole.
But let’s hope that the next time it’s so obvious what the right thing is—politically and ethically—he gets there sooner and without advocates having to deploy the political equivalent of a cattle prod to get him to “yes.”