Don't blame the Senate on Mitch McConnell
Josh Green's profile of Mitch McConnell is very, very good. But it suffers from one major problem: It's about Mitch McConnell.
The thesis of the article is that McConnell is the man for this obstructionist moment. As his friend and former colleague Bob Bennett says at the end of the piece, “When I came to the Senate, Bob Dole was the leader, and he was superb. Absolutely on top of his game, on top of the institution. Nobody approached Dole. It’s a very different Senate today, very different political atmosphere. Dole would be deeply frustrated. McConnell is the right guy for this atmosphere."
The comparison with Dole is instructive. For much of his time in the Senate, Dole was was get-things-done type. But not for all of it. As the Senate changed, so too did Dole. When Bill Clinton won the presidency and Newt Gingrich launched the bombastic obstructionism that would initially hobble the young administration, Dole quickly got with the program. Gingrich's strategy would never have worked without Dole bottling up Clinton's agenda in the Senate. Not only did Dole lead the Republicans in lockstep opposition to Clinton's health-care reforms, but Dole ended up voting against two bills that he'd sponsored in order to keep a compromise off the table. And it wasn't just health care. If you look at this graph of filibusters, in fact, you'll see the massive jump in the 103rd and 104th Congresses, both of which saw Dole leading the Senate Republicans:
What's odd about McConnell isn't that he's used obstruction to try and return his party to power, but that he's been so honest about both his tactics and his intentions. Explaining his party's decision to keep its "fingerprints" off all of Obama's major proposals, McConnell gave a quick course in the way both the media and the public assess the extremism of proposals based on process rather than policy. "When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward," he told Green. Shortly before the midterm elections, McConnell offered another peek into his motivations: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
But if it wasn't McConnell launching the filibusters, it'd be someone else. They might be better on television or more collegial in front of the cameras, but they'd still be filing objections and wasting time and holding their members together. In part, that's because the various interest groups and grass-roots organizations that power the Republican Party do not want to see compromises on liberal agenda items. But the larger truth is that obstruction just makes sense: If you can only win the next campaign if the public considers the governing party a failure, and if it's in your power to make the governing party fail, well, you can finish the thought.
The Senate isn't gridlocked and polarized because it's full of bad people. It's gridlocked and polarized because gridlock and polarization serve the interests of the minority. I don't care what sort of saints you gather in an office, if you get fired if the boss likes the work of the guy in the cubicle next to you, you're not going to praise his efforts at the next company retreat. McConnell isn't a bad man and he's not an indispensable man. He's just a rational actor in a broken institution.
Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski.
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