Was McConnell the indispensable man?

posted at 11:20 am on January 5, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

The Tea Party provided the energy to remove Democrats from control of the House, as well as score a historic victory in state legislatures across the country in the midterm elections.  But did Mitch McConnell provide the framework for the victory through strategic defiance and near-total caucus unity?  The Atlantic’s Joshua Green argues that the Senate Minority Leader, whom he calls the “strict obstructionist,” was the architect if not the dynamo of the 2010 Republican wave:

WHEN A PARTY loses a presidential election, a void opens up at the top. In the past two years, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and John Boehner have each been put forward as the de facto leader of the Republican Party. But at least in Washington, McConnell has been the crucial man. When Obama took office with large majorities in Congress, it seemed possible that the country might be on the cusp of a Democratic era. Nobody anticipated the Republican swing only two years later, in part because besides lacking a leader, the party had not formulated any clear set of ideas that might bring one about. And the poisonous tenor of today’s politics has surprised the many people who believed that Obama would usher in the “post-partisan” age he summoned so convincingly on the campaign trail. McConnell had a lot to do with both outcomes.

Many times in the past, when the country has gotten into real trouble, the parties have come together to do what is necessary to set things right again. A good recent illustration is the Troubled Asset Relief Program (aka “the bailout”), which kept the economy from collapse, was supported by both party leaderships and was signed into law by President Bush in October 2008. McConnell called TARP’s passage “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.” Obama took over expecting this spirit to endure. But from the outset, McConnell blocked or frustrated just about everything the administration tried to do, including the government’s distribution of TARP funds, in January 2009, just three months after McConnell voted to authorize them.

When I visited McConnell in Kentucky just before the midterm elections, he cast his opposition as a principled response to Democratic attempts to exploit a national crisis. “Rahm Emanuel famously said, ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’ ” he told me. “They rolled out what we thought was a hard-left agenda. Looking at it from their point of view, at the time, it was not an irrational decision. They thought they had an extraordinarily popular president, and they were just gonna do it, things they’d wanted to do for 30 years that had been bottled up, either because it was a Republican president or because it was a Republican Congress. There was always some impediment that prevented them from Europeanizing the country. And so all of a sudden, this was their shot.” There’s some truth to this line of criticism—especially where it pertains to the stimulus, which included much that wasn’t directly related to jump-starting the economy.

But McConnell didn’t waste the crisis, either. He has used it to chart a path back from oblivion for the Republican Party, mainly by blocking or delaying Democratic bills and then raising an outcry about the travesties being perpetrated on the country. Democrats may have won on health care, the stimulus, Wall Street reform, and a host of other measures that made the last Congress the most productive in a generation. But, at least for now, they have lost the political battle. Significant numbers of Americans disapprove of these policies, especially the expansion of health care. Many of them have been convinced by McConnell’s skillful exertions— especially his gift for scornful neologisms, which has helped to demonize not just Democratic policies but the very manner in which they came into being. (Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman, was a campaign adviser early in McConnell’s career.) If you got upset when you heard about the “Cornhusker Kickback” or the “Louisiana Purchase”—or perhaps you were lectured by a Fox News–watching relative who did—that was McConnell. He coined the terms to cast sinister aspersions on what were actually typical instances of political horse-trading, in this case over health care.

Two years into his presidency, Barack Obama no longer seems the obvious heir to John F. Kennedy, no one talks about post-partisanship anymore, and the atmosphere in Washington has returned to its ugly pre-2008 standoff. McConnell has been remarkably successful at turning the country against the Democrats.

Green notes that not everyone appreciates the role McConnell has played, at least how Green envisions it.  McConnell spent considerable time carrying George Bush’s water on Capitol Hill after Bill Frist left, and that meant playing a significant role in TARP, which animated Tea Party activists in the past cycle, especially for its use in bailing out GM and Chrysler.  McConnell also only became a recent and reluctant convert to the fight against earmarking, and only to the extent that he now concedes it needs reform, rather than permanent elimination.  McConnell is not a politician with personal warmth or charisma, Green reports, and that keeps him from effectively defending himself in a conservative movement with a plethora of charismatic leaders.  However, for his role, McConnell seems perfectly adapted.  His supposed lack of personal charisma is overshadowed by his cold and accurate strategic analysis, and his ability to play it out effectively.

One could argue, though, that McConnell was boosted in his effort at unity in the 111th Session by the same forces that have allowed Nancy Pelosi to hang onto power in the House Democratic Caucus in the 112th.  The losses in 2006 and 2008 pared back the moderates in McConnell’s caucus and left him with only a few members to corral, mainly the two Senators from Maine and Arlen Specter.  Specter later defected after he sensed that Republicans would unite around a primary challenger for Specter’s variance with the majority on Porkulus in a way they hadn’t done in 2004 when the opportunity presented itself, and those forces soon convinced Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as Lindsey Graham and John McCain, to remain in line for the rest of the session.

Still, Green makes an intriguing case for at least some appreciation for McConnell’s role in keeping the caucus together, even if he doesn’t quite exemplify the kind of reform Tea Party activists want.  The same should be true for John Boehner, on that basis.  After the beating Republicans took in 2006 and 2008, most analysts predicted that the conservative movement had run out of gas and that GOP leadership needed to move to the left to remain relevant.  Both leaders went the counterintuitive route instead, sensing that Democrats and Barack Obama would so badly overreach that they would revitalize the GOP and fiscal conservatism themselves; as long as Republicans kept their fingerprints off of the Democratic agenda, as McConnell put it, they foresaw a quick return to relevancy and competitiveness.  Events proved that strategy correct, and that may be the most relevant measure of Congressional minority leadership.


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Mitch McConnell: political nose tackle.

Akzed on January 5, 2011 at 11:22 AM

Really hard to see the word “dynamo” and McConnell in the same sentence…

PatriotRider on January 5, 2011 at 11:23 AM

McConnell did a great job keeping Republicans from defecting on ObamaCare and the stimulus. He made the Democrats own both. Whatever faults he has, he still deserves credit for that. His strategy on the big issues has helped considerably weaken Obama.

Caiwyn on January 5, 2011 at 11:24 AM

McConnell has been remarkably successful at turning the country against the Democrats.

Thank you, Sir!

The Republic heartily thanks you!

Bruno Strozek on January 5, 2011 at 11:29 AM

McConnell did a great job keeping Republicans from defecting on ObamaCare and the stimulus. He made the Democrats own both. Whatever faults he has, he still deserves credit for that. His strategy on the big issues has helped considerably weaken Obama.

Caiwyn on January 5, 2011 at 11:24 AM

I totally agree with this. He deserves credit for getting us here.

NJ Red on January 5, 2011 at 11:30 AM

Over the past two years we have seen a near trillion dollar stimulus package passed, the greatest healthcare reform in the history of medicine enacted, the most far-reaching financial reforms since the Great Depression, and a trillion dollar tax cut and spending initiative put into law. Not to mention an assortment of other measures (bailouts, repeal of DADT, et cetera).

And yet Green is somehow arguing that McConnell obstructed all of this legislation?

McConnell did his best – he had a weak hand – but to argue as Green does that McConnell somehow prevented significant legislation from being passed – and that the filibuster procedure must be eliminated – simply doesn’t measure up.

If the past two years exemplify gridlock, what the heck does significant legislation look like?

SteveMG on January 5, 2011 at 11:31 AM

That is the most confused article I’ve read in a long time. So Dems had the “most productive in a generation” Congress, yet McConnell blocked everything? His genius master plan was to argue in public against Dem legislation and vote against it???

Clark1 on January 5, 2011 at 11:32 AM

The easiest time to show “unity” is when showing said unity has absolutely no effect (as it did in much of 2009). The rest of the time, Harry Reid could almost always count on however many Republicrats he needed to cross over.

steveegg on January 5, 2011 at 11:32 AM

The best thing McConnell did was to get the Republicans out of the way of the self-destruction of the Democratic Party.

By putting forward a unified opposition, he was able to distance the party from the terrible legislation that the Democrats enacted.

Green wanted the Republicans to provide cover for these terrible laws. Because as a liberal he thinks the legislation was good albeit the process was flawed.

Green’s entire thesis is wrong.

SteveMG on January 5, 2011 at 11:34 AM

Remember: Bills can be bipartisan even if only one party votes for them, because we used IDEAS from both parties-Nancy Pelosi.

McConnell probably saved the republican party from oblivion by refusing to be any part of Obamacare. Democrats wouldn’t have wasted a single second in blaming republicans for every disaster that unfolds from this federal over-reach. Every R in washington, and a few D’s I guess, is free to hang this albatross around the necks of Obama Pelosi, and Reid thanks to McConnell and the way he handled it.

Mord on January 5, 2011 at 11:34 AM

So Dems had the “most productive in a generation” Congress, yet McConnell blocked everything? His genius master plan was to argue in public against Dem legislation and vote against it???

Agreed. That jumps out at me too.

Green is arguing, it seems to me, that by opposing the legislation McConnell made the process “uglier” and this made the public turn against the Democrats.

He thinks the problem was process and lack of bipartisanship when the real problem is the substance of the bills.

Green likes the legislation but blames McConnell and the Republicans for making the process “ugly” and appear partisan. He think that obstructionism turned the public against the legislation.

He is flat out wrong.

SteveMG on January 5, 2011 at 11:37 AM

IMHO Boehner did an even better job in the House at making sure all the hard left legislation was tagged exclusively with the D label. And Boehner had to deal with issues such as Cap and Trade which never even came to the Senate floor for a vote.

I believe that both Boehner and McConnell did the best they could with a very weak hand during the past two years.

jwolf on January 5, 2011 at 11:38 AM

McConnell is nothing if not a survivor. He changes his stripes to do whatever needs to be done. We can still blame him for allowing the deficit spending under President Bush, but we also have to acknowledge that he was the right man at the right time when Obama came to power.

I would like anyone who comes on this thread trashing McConnell to tell me who would have done a better job the last 2 years, with the same hand McConnell had, and how he/she would have done it.

rockmom on January 5, 2011 at 11:46 AM

He made several shrewd parliamentary moves, if he has finally gotten the message of the people, I am sure he will be an asset.

Cindy Munford on January 5, 2011 at 11:50 AM

He is flat out wrong.

SteveMG on January 5, 2011 at 11:37 AM

Anyone who starts out with the premise that Obamacare was good legislation and it was “the process” that people hate should be pointed at and laughed out of the room.

Mord on January 5, 2011 at 11:54 AM

McConnell couldn’t even get Trey Grayson nominated in his home state.

bw222 on January 5, 2011 at 11:56 AM

Uh…No. No way in hell.

McConnell (who famously changed his vote the McCain-Kennedy Amnesty Bill) is no leader. He is a follower who keeps his finger in the wind. He’s better at reading the wind than others, but he is still but a weather vane. If we don’t keep his feet to the fire, he will stop dancing to our tune. Have no misconceptions about that.

Kasper Hauser on January 5, 2011 at 12:06 PM

This article is kooky. McConnell did a good job, but this basically is a rehash of the D’s main talking points — that R’s wouldn’t cooperate for the good of the country, and instead exploited Senate procedures to block critical legislation.

Don’t buy it. The D’s got their priorities — Porkulus, the health care bill, the Dodd-Frank fin reg bill. Porkulus passed during post-election hubris, and the R’s made no real serious effort to filibuster Dodd-Frank.

The press can’t seem to figure it out, but R’s found it easy to vote against the health care bill because it was an awful bill. It was the D’s who held their noses and voted for it who voted against their policy consciences, not the R’s.

This is all part of the D’s narrative of “obstruction.” It’s BS because the D’s PASSED those bills, and furthermore because R’s genuinely opposed them.

Chuckles3 on January 5, 2011 at 12:08 PM

This analysis is wrong. McConnell was not a “leader” in any meaningful sense of the word during the last Congress. He faced an effectively filibuster-proof Senate majority and so all he could do was tell his members to keep their heads down, vote ‘no,’ and let the Tea Party people drive the bus on public opinion. That’s not leadership.

No, you want to assess McConnell’s leadership abilities, look at when he actually ran the Senate back in the mid-2000s. He ushered in huge spending increases and was unable to pass entitlement or immigration reform. Under his watch, the GOP lost control of the Senate entirely. (Granted, not all of that was his fault, but it isn’t exactly a feather in his cap, either…)

Outlander on January 5, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Don’t buy it. The D’s got their priorities

Exactly. I’m not criticizing McConnell – he played the hand he had – but what did he prevent from being passed?

The liberals have convinced themselves that the problem was process and not substance. That Republican obstructionism made the legislative sausage-making even worse looking than normal and that’s why the public turned against it. Not because of the legislation qua legislation; but because the partisan Republicans made it look bad.

Liberals usually say something failed because it wasn’t funded adequately. Now they’re saying it failed because the process was corrupted by GOP obstructionism.

It’s never the substance of what they do; it’s always something else.

SteveMG on January 5, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Its so easy to be an internet warrorior and criticize and whine like adolescents. But both McConnell and Boehner did fine jobs managing their herds last session. People assume everyone is just going to bow down to the power of the whip, but herding all those various interests, states, and opinions into a united force is difficult.

swamp_yankee on January 5, 2011 at 12:17 PM

The better question is “Did the Tea Party provide McConnell the bright ideas of opposing the Dems?” He coulda ended up unemployed in KY….Brrrr.

Herb on January 5, 2011 at 12:19 PM

Boy that author has a funny view of history. McConnel didn’t shut the Democrats out from work on the Porkulus bill. McConnell didn’t shut the Democrats out from work in crafting the health care bill.

Washington didn’t revert to 2008 form, when Obama came in, he told the GOP “we won”, and then steamrolled them. In short, the partisanship level went UP when Obama took power.

hawksruleva on January 5, 2011 at 12:21 PM

It’s never the substance of what they do; it’s always something else.

SteveMG on January 5, 2011 at 12:15 PM

That’s because Dems specializein writing blank checks. So any talk about the amount on the check, or the date on the check, or the purpose of the check, is moot to them. The health care bill is about creating more Democrat voters; so why are people worried about the specifics?

hawksruleva on January 5, 2011 at 12:23 PM

There is actually one thing that both McConnell and Boehner did really well, was critical to the R’s comeback, and which this article totally misses because of its determination to repeat the D’s “obstruction” storyline.

They didn’t get in the way. They saw a backlash brewing, they respected it, they didn’t divert the story away from it, they listened to it.

You think that was a no-brainer, an easy task? Consider that for the last 20 years, the D’s have successfully based their Washington political tactics on demonizing a key R decision-maker — the line runs through Newt Gingrich through Tom Delay through Dick Cheney.

The D’s took a few stabs at doing this with Boehner and McConnell, but gave it up quickly — each was too disciplined and too low-profile to let them. So the D bloggers continue to stalk an out-of-office R (Sarah Palin) while failing to blame Congressional R leaders for all the country’s woes.

The whole Tea Party movement could have been thrown off track if D’s had succeeded in tying it to an unpopular Congressional R leader. McConnell and Boehner perceiving that, and avoiding those mis-steps, was huge.

Chuckles3 on January 5, 2011 at 12:23 PM

Give me a break.

That pieces like this aren’t howled at in derision is testimony to how completely we’ve lost sight and memory of what it means to be conservative warriors able and willing to take our case to the people.

rrpjr on January 5, 2011 at 12:24 PM

McConnell couldn’t even get Trey Grayson nominated in his home state.

bw222 on January 5, 2011 at 11:56 AM

Yes, but Grayson is a turkey. And I apologize to turkeys.

BuckeyeSam on January 5, 2011 at 12:25 PM

Both leaders went the counterintuitive route instead, sensing that Democrats and Barack Obama would so badly overreach that they would revitalize the GOP and fiscal conservatism themselves; as long as Republicans kept their fingerprints off of the Democratic agenda, as McConnell put it, they foresaw a quick return to relevancy and competitiveness.

McConnell probably did realize that Barack Obama was the most leftist President in his lifetime, and that Democrats WOULD overreach under his leadership. Even though Obama labeled Republicans as “the Party of No”, McConnell accurately pointed out the dangers of the Obama agenda, and Republicans became the party of “stop the madness”, which gained traction with the voters during the long debate over the health care law.

Since the minority party had very little influence in the Pelosi-run House, McConnell was the only Republican with any power left, albeit only a foot-dragging power with barely enough votes to sustain filibusters, the last bastion against runaway socialism.

McConnell will probably have a much greater role in the new Congress. Maintaining filibusters is a lot easier with 47 Republicans, especially since most of the new Senators (Hoeven, Rubio, Toomey, Boozman, Paul, Coats) are solid, reliable conservatives. But filibusters shouldn’t be necessary for legislation coming out of John Boehner’s House.

In order to enact any POSITIVE legislation (not just defunding an Executive department), McConnell is the key, and he will have to go on OFFENSE. Some bills coming out of a Republican-dominated House probably can’t get 60 votes for cloture in a Senate with 53 Democrats. McConnell will have to prove his negotiating skill, to not only round up 47 Republicans, but win over 13 Democrats out of the 21 up for re-election in 2012, either by threats of an all-out campaign against them, or minor concessions on legislation. How much legislation he can get through the Senate, without too much watering-down, the next two years will be the true test of McConnell’s leadership skills.

Steve Z on January 5, 2011 at 12:25 PM

McConnel’s job was made easy by a Tea Party that kept the focus on a failed Stimulus that Snowe and Collins voted for. That kept the Maine twins fearful of signing on to failed Democrat policies while the spotlight was on. During the lame duck we saw the Northeast Republicans run back to the RINO corner. They will use the cover of the new Senators to vote with the Democrats and not receieve the heat of being the deciding vote on Democrat pet projects. Brown, Snowe and Collins will be NE RINOs on every issue that isn’t objectionable to even the voters in the NE. No Republican in the Northeast has core priniciples and that includes Christie who supported Castle for crying out loud. They are all Conservative on no brainers like when Unions are blatantly ripping off the public (Christie) and that is all.

Conan on January 5, 2011 at 12:33 PM

So Green us saying he is mad that McConnell, who apparently listened to the People,and kept Republicans from voting yes on the legislation that lost the Dems the House… and the Senate and Presidency in 2012. Okay whatever.

I really really hope McConnell can do a better job of reigning in the RINOs such as Brown, Grahamesty, Collins, Snowe, et. al. I’ve not been impressed of recent events that have improved Obama’s ratings as they were seen as victories for him.

CCRWM on January 5, 2011 at 12:38 PM

I wouldn’t be looking for anyone in the Republican party to congratulate for the boon they recieved this last election. If you want to thank anyone, thank the Democrats for their reckless spending and intrusive policies. You might also want to thank common everyday Americans that have gotten fed up with the lies and inaction coming from Washington.

As a matter of fact if the Republicans don’t clean up their act and turn this nation around, they will be out on their ear also.

SGinNC on January 5, 2011 at 12:46 PM

It’s not like they didn’t try to Smear McConnell early on. Diane Sawyer’s Special on Kentucky Miners, right before “Porkulus” was passed and McConnell was against the passage.

I have kin back in SE Kentucky, and we were not impressed with Diane Sawyer or the ladies of the view. The MSM (ABC) in this case, has been carrying the progressive water for a long, long time. I doubt they are going to stop now that their team is in the minority.

The word I would use to describe Mitch Mike McConnell, is consistency. Really the President of United States couldn’t even remember his name, and called him Mike.

Indispensable I don’t know, but he sure came in handy ;)

Dr Evil on January 5, 2011 at 12:58 PM

Mitch McConnell wasn’t wrong about the Stimulus Bill, and he isn’t wrong about the Obama Administration.

Dr Evil on January 5, 2011 at 1:21 PM

McConnell called TARP’s passage “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.”

I threw up a little in my mouth after reading that.

angryed on January 5, 2011 at 1:41 PM

It’s not surprising to see the level of ingratitude, especially among the fair weather “Republicans” who desert the party at the drop of the hat and label lifetime ACU-rated 98 Senator Jim Imhofe a “RINO” when he doesn’t follow their party line.

These refugees from Buchanan’s buttocks should crawl back up there.

Adjoran on January 5, 2011 at 1:44 PM

Bull crap to the Atlantic article. It is liberal bull crap. The only reason the Republicans stuck together, finally, was because they were scared shitless about being turfed out. Simple. Easy to understand. You do not need a degree to figure it out. Pure logic. It is called survival. When the grass roots are throwing the bums out, you make sure they can’t identify you as a bum. Mitch is a jerk off ass kissing back slapping Establishment guy. He can bs all he wants… that is what he is.And somewhere down the road, he has to go too.

PhilipJames on January 5, 2011 at 2:12 PM

near-total caucus unity?

Astonishing statement.
Where was this vaunted unity as McConnell et al snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the lame duck session?

Yes, McConnell was indispensable . . . . to Maobama’s success. Put him on the RINO Mt Rushmore.

james23 on January 5, 2011 at 2:42 PM

Uh…No. No way in hell.

McConnell (who famously changed his vote the McCain-Kennedy Amnesty Bill) is no leader. He is a follower who keeps his finger in the wind. He’s better at reading the wind than others, but he is still but a weather vane. If we don’t keep his feet to the fire, he will stop dancing to our tune. Have no misconceptions about that.

Kasper Hauser on January 5, 2011 at 12:06 PM

Agreed. Mitch did what he did as a pragmatic, not out of any conviction, rather, just staying in front of the wave. I’ll grant that he was effective in “saving” the GOP brand from the progressive onslaught, but respectfully submit that when his term is up that he gets primaried so that Rand gets some backup.

AH_C on January 5, 2011 at 2:44 PM

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Suppose McConnell had not been there? What would really have been different? There was very little that was passed with absolutely zero Republican contribution. In the face of massive public anger, the Republicans STILL did not start blocking the Democrat agenda on their own convictions until the Lame Duck Session – when the (only poll that counts) results were in. Then, and only then, did the Republicans finally act like they knew what the word actually means. And that is purely out of self-interest/self-survival, rather than any so-called ‘leadership’. It was the House, not the Senate, that was blocking the Dems.

What limited success there was really has nothing to do with McConnell. He is little more than a weak cheer-leader, and it’s an insult to leaders everywhere to think that he can be numbered in their ranks.

ss396 on January 5, 2011 at 3:17 PM

McConnell wanted to go home Christmas of ’09 and we got obamacare…This past lame duck session, instead of getting a Continuing Resolution passed and then sending the R’s home so that NOTHING else would be passed he hung around and let Murkowski, Bennett, etc. vote for DADT, START, Food “Safety” and other dem legislation. He didn’t even attempt a filibuster…

It’s a wonder that more of the dem’s socialistic agenda was not passed, in the face of McConnell’s lack of leadership…

Gohawgs on January 6, 2011 at 12:13 AM