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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 12/22/2010

Mitch McConnell says the darndest things

By Ezra Klein

Thumbnail image for mcconnelltaxcuts.JPG

I'm not surprised that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to spend the next two years kicking President Obama in the shins. What does surprise me is that he keeps saying he wants to spend the next two years kicking President Obama in the shins. Yesterday, he told Politico that "there’s much for [the Democrats] to be angst-ridden about. If they think it’s bad now, wait ‘til next year.” A few months ago, when National Journal asked him, "what's the job?," he said, "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

This is not how prominent politicians tend to talk. Bipartisanship might be mostly illusory in Washington, but it's very popular in the country. And polls continually show that Americans think President Obama more sincerely interested in bipartisanship than the Republicans are -- which theoretically gives him the upper hand if and when he does choose to go to the mat over something. So why does McConnell speak this way? The theories I've heard are:

1) The Mr. Smith flicks off Washington theory: McConnell himself is a hardcore partisan who truly dislikes Obama. The guy says this stuff because he's an uncommonly honest politician.

2) Jon Chait's theory: McConnell is worried about the tea parties, both in Kentucky, where they knocked off his favored candidate in a primary, and nationally. This is how he stays ahead of them.

3) The DeMint theory: The common take on McConnell on the Hill is that he's terrified of Jim DeMint's growing influence among Republican legislators. McConnell can't out-conservative DeMint -- in part because he's simply not conservative in the way DeMint is, and in part because, as leader, he'll have to sign onto compromises that DeMint will never support -- so he's trying to out-partisan him, with the central insight being that most conservatives are bigger partisans than they are ideologues.

4) The negotiator's theory: McConnell is a creature of the Senate. He makes deals. The tax deal, for instance, was McConnell's. So he repeats these comments for two reasons: First, to show the White House that he's not a pushover, and is not impressed by them and should not be taken lightly. And second, to underscore his partisan credibility so that when he does cut deals with the White House, he has the conservative capital necessary to sell them as something other than capitulations to Obama.

5) He's communicating with his members and allies: Senate Republicans will remain in the minority next year, and so McConnell's job in 2011 will be the same as his job in 2010: Keep everyone together on procedural votes so Democrats can't move their agenda forward. McConnell is giving these quotes to Beltway publications like the National Journal and Politico, which are best understood as message boards where the professional political class talks to itself. By making his intentions public in these forums, McConnell is letting his members -- not to mention allied lobbyists, advocacy groups, etc -- know how seriously he's going to take party loyalty over the next two years.

Any that I'm missing? Leave them in comments, or e-mail me.

Photo credit: By J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  | December 22, 2010; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

--*[W]hy does McConnell speak this way?*--

So that Valley Girls will talk.

Posted by: msoja | December 22, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

>>Any that I'm missing? >>

No one notices, except his base. The media don't report, there's no left wing noise machine to hammer him, Democrats don't highlight the issue, the public generally doesn't pay attention.

This gives McConnell, and republicans generally, freedom to say these things and take very unpopular positions. They then crank up their noise machine when necessary.

Posted by: fuse | December 22, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

don't you have any pictures of McConnell that don't seem like he's auditioning for your local mall's Santa Claus gig?

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 22, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

It reminds me of the "council wars" in Chicago after Harold Washington was elected (city's first black mayor). The white aldermen joined together to stymie pretty much anything Washington wanted to do. Not because he was black, of course -- that would be racist -- no, because they just didn't agree with him...

Posted by: crosspalms | December 22, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

The first of an uncertain number of New Year's Predictions:

1) McConnell is going to be involved in a major scandal within the next two years that will cost him at least his leadership position, although not necessarily his seat.

Whenever you start to get this big, and make this many enemies, there's alwasy somebody out there who has soemthing on you and carries a grudge.

Posted by: 54465446 | December 22, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

re 54465446:

Some might suggest there are more than skeletons in McConnell's closet.

Posted by: kindness1 | December 22, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

"No one notices, except his base. The media don't report, there's no left wing noise machine to hammer him, Democrats don't highlight the issue, the public generally doesn't pay attention."

+1. Exactly. What does surprise me is that the Democrats don't make more of Republican obstructionism. It took Jon Stewart and Shep Smith to bring the 9/11 responders bill back to life. There was an issue served up on a platter to the Democrats and they just dropped it. Let's hope they can scrape it back together.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | December 22, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

kindness:

I've heard that too, but

1) no idea if it's true, and

2) unfair to write about such things without the above.

Even as posters I believe we should maintain some standards of decency toward one another.

Posted by: 54465446 | December 22, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

#5

Yes, it is all insider baseball.

I firmly believe your own WaPo columnist Krauthammer ripped him badly. So McConnell is basically responding to that criticism.

You also forgot one good point by TNR Chait - McConnell would not go so far as destroying Economy to bring down Obama whereas Krauthammer and many other ideologues do not have any scruples about it. So McConnell knows that beyond a point he cannot be literal enemy of Obama and preside over wrecking of America even if Conservative Critics are asking like that. Way out - oppose START but support some of the core finance bills like Tax Cut Deal. Possibly same will be the case next year for Budget and Debt Ceiling. More McConnell needs to go for core bi-partisan deals; more shrill will be his critics like Krauthammer as well as more shrill be his responses and those will be Public too.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 22, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

He is assuming a public mandate in the same way the democrats did in the last couple elections. He also may be listening to the shrill talk radio comments and assume that the country has a silent majority who support him. The problem is that his party has lost its moral high ground in the last decade and will not get it back for a generation.
This is going to be a hard lesson for his party which may go through more purges and eventually become a third party within the next 20 years.

Posted by: EducatingTheFools | December 22, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I think you missed the most likely possibility: McConnell is a royal a--hole.

Posted by: rashomon | December 22, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Re: rashomon Clear, concise and on point. Well said.

Posted by: ostrogoth | December 22, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

rashomon Clear, concise and on point. Well said.

Posted by: ostrogoth | December 22, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

1. On policy McConnell thinks it's "better to remain silent and be taken for a fool than to speak and remove all doubt" -- S Johnson.

I am thinking of the first darnedest thing he said. Let's pretend (all in fun you know) that McConnell was totally stumped by the question. His aim has been to block Obama period full stop. He had been feaverishly following the elections. He couldn't think of any policy proposals off the top of his head (I know you haven't had that experience since you turned four but this happens to people). So rather than stand their gaping, he said the truth.

2. He knows perfectly well that he can't get to 67 votes on anything, so he won't be able to do anything while Obama has the veto. So he said that all goals would have to wait until Obama was out of the White House. This has the added advantage of being true (unless Obama is a whimp).

3. He is so partisan that he can't imagine anything else, so he has no idea what impression he is making on people who see a national interest seperate from their party's interest.

I actually believe that my third explanation is closest to the truth. One can't effectively pretend to be that which one can't imagine.

Posted by: rjw88 | December 22, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

Oh wait I forgot the most plausible explanation. McConnell is actually a robot. Each day he is programmed (usually to say no). He was programmed for politics because it was election night.

Posted by: rjw88 | December 22, 2010 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Here's another:
The Self-Moderating Party Theory

The GOP is very, very good and not only negotiating with the Democrats, but with the public. To that end, they frequently have a bad cop and then send out their good cops who, invariably, are only good cops because they are pretending to be reasonable.

So here's the way I think this works:
McConnell and probably Boehner take the very, very hard line and play to the parisans (they have no appeal to moderates anyhow). Then, on Sunday morning the GOP will trot out their less parisan, tough, common sense governors to tell the world that there's some truth to what McConnell, Boehner, et al are saying and that the country has to make "tough choices." They will use their brand of reasonablenes to accuse the democrats of unfair partisanship.

The McConnell tough talk is a head fake. The GOP will never make Mitch McConnell the face of the party.

Anyhow, that's just my theory. This has been fun.

Posted by: phillycomment | December 22, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Just wanted to add one more thing.
The reason I think it's important for the democrats to recognize the head fake is because they have to be able to win arguments not against McConnell and Boehner, but against Christie, Corbett, Kasich, and that dude from Wisconsin. In the past, the dems have tried to make this more about personalities than ideas. That doesn't really work. It's about both, always will be.

Posted by: phillycomment | December 22, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

"Deep Throat" advised us to "...follow the money."

Who benefits financially from McConnell's victories, that is, who gains (or loses)when he blocks legislation?

When McConnell or others grab the shelf space of Senatorial action what are the issues that never get a chance to breathe, to be exposed.

Example: With all the shelf space given to DADT, there seems to me no room or time to discuss or debate our current wars.

In my opinion there are too many issues being blocked from transparency.

Who gains, and what?

Posted by: mooseman01 | December 22, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

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