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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