(CNN)Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prides himself on being a student of history and politics. Which is why what he said Monday about former President Barack Obama is so egregious.
“I think President Obama should’ve kept his mouth shut,” McConnell said on a Trump campaign live-stream event of the former president’s critique of how President Donald Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic. “I think it’s a little bit classless, frankly, to critique an administration that comes after you. You had your shot. You were there for eight years. I think the tradition that the Bushes set up — of not critiquing the president who comes after you — is a good tradition.”
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Look. There’s a bunch of problems with what McConnell is saying. Let’s go through them.
First — and most importantly — since we are on the topic of political traditions, it’s long been a tradition that the current president doesn’t personally attack the person who came before him.
Sure, Obama talked about how he inherited a tough economy from George W. Bush. But he didn’t go after Bush personally in any way, shape or form.
Trump presidency before it even began. His evidence for that claim? Not much! Trump has also suggested that Obama left him no plan on how to deal with potential pandemics — a claim that McConnell repeated on Monday, and, also, isn’t true. Trump has savaged Obama as weak, as ineffective, as corrupt.
Second, Obama made these comments — he said the Trump response to the pandemic was “an absolute chaotic disaster” — not in public but on a private call with former members of his staff and administration.
Yes, of course, Obama was aware his comments might leak. But it’s an important distinction nonetheless. As a former president, he could have very easily sat for an interview with any network he wanted to offer a stinging critique of how Trump is handling the coronavirus crisis. Hell, he could have also addressed the fact that the current president is accusing him of organizing an illegal coup! Obama didn’t do any of that. He gave his candid views about Trump’s handling of coronavirus — a view more or less shared by a majority of Americans in the new CNN poll, by the way — to friends and staff.
Third, McConnell, who has been around politics for a very long time, should know better than to tell the first black president to keep his mouth shut. Even if McConnell meant nothing by it, it’s not a good look.
Taken broadly, what McConnell is doing here is what Trump and his party have been doing for the last three-plus years: Shattering every possible presidential norm with glee while also demanding that political opponents adhere to those same norms. I’ve lost count at the number of times Trump expresses faux shock at the language used by one of his rivals even as he curses and impugns them without a second thought. Or demands that someone be fired for making a mistake or airing an incorrect claim even as he has racked up literally thousands of misstatements and falsehoods during his time in office.
In short: What Trump, McConnell and the rest of the GOP want is for Democrats to play by the long-established rules even as the President cavalierly breaks those same rules. It’s like playing a basketball game and demanding that the refs only call fouls for one side — and then insisting that this is the only fair way that things can be done.
It’s all, well, a little much. You don’t get to throw mud and then get mad when a little gets slung back at you. McConnell, of all people, knows this. Or at least should.