In response to what he calls the president’s “war on coal,” future Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I’m going to war with him.”
For McConnell, the historic agreement the president signed with the Chinese, committing them for the first time to dramatic reductions in their greenhouse gases, is an outrage, an assault on “my state.”
McConnell has just been reelected by the citizens of Kentucky, albeit a small minority of them. (In a state where fewer than half of those eligible to vote showed up, McConnell won with the votes of about one-fourth of the eligible voters). But seldom has a leader so clearly demonstrated he will allow ideology and special interests to overrule both common sense and the common good.
For McConnell, architect of the Republican scorched-earth obstruction against all things Obama, going to war with the president is old hat. Among other things, he led the repeated Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare. Only it turned out health-care reform is remarkably popular in Kentucky, where the governor embraced it and hundreds of thousands have benefited, particularly from the expansion of Medicaid, which McConnell is against.
During the campaign, McConnell tried to square this circle by suggesting inaccurately the Kentucky program could continue even if health-care reform was repealed. In part to make up for that foolishness, he was forced to run one of the most expensive Senate races ever to save his seat in a deep red state.
Now McConnell is proving he is a man of the past, not a leader for the future. No matter how much he may stick his head in the ground, climate change is already a real and present danger. Even the Pentagon acknowledges that. The berserk weather that is already roiling the world has concentrated the minds of responsible leaders in governments, militaries, businesses and societies across the globe. Senator McConnell may promise to use his post as Senate majority leader to stand in the doorway and try to block change, but he will find he is on the wrong side of history.
Imagine what a more responsible leader of “coal country” would do. McConnell could easily go to the president and demand a major program to transform the region, a Tennessee Valley Authority-size program that would make coal country a center for manufacturing windmills and solar panels and other renewable sources of energy. He could demand funds for rebuilding the region’s energy infrastructure, for investing in its schools, for retraining its workers. He could argue any just transition must include a real promise of jobs — with the government as the employer of last resort if necessary. He could demand investment in new hospitals and public health facilities, both to care for miners afflicted from their work in the mines and to be a source of employment and good health in the future. He could be the leader who launches a long-overdue renaissance for the region, rather than trying to hang on desperately to its no longer sustainable past.
But of course to do that, McConnell would have to represent the common good of his constituents rather than the special interests — the oil and coal companies — that helped pay for his campaign. He’d have to accept that in a time of national and regional emergency, his conservative anti-government ideology should take a back seat to vital public investment and planning. Like Lyndon B. Johnson embracing the cause of civil rights, or Ronald Reagan reaching out to Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, on nuclear disarmament, he’d have to have sufficient vision to ignore the brickbats of his allies on the right.
McConnell shows no sign of rising to the historic opportunity before him. Instead, he will howl at the rising tides, deny the reality around him and continue the unrelenting partisan warfare that has brought him to his current position. A war on coal? Senator McConnell will fight for the interests of the coal companies and the oil industry. But the greatest damage inflicted on the people of coal country will be done by their newly re-elected Senator, who simply doesn’t have a clue.
Jesse L. Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. You can keep up with his work at http://www.rainbowpush.org.