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Posted at 10:24 AM ET, 01/12/2011

Don't blame the Senate on Mitch McConnell

By Ezra Klein


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:

Thumbnail image for breakingthefilibuster.jpg

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.

By Ezra Klein  | January 12, 2011; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: After the Senate


The parties (R & D) are now more important to politicians than voters. Whoever controls the parties calls the shots.

It stinks.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | January 12, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

"The Senate isn't gridlocked and polarized because it's full of bad people."

Good post, but this is wrong. I'd say the over-under on how many Senators are really deeply just bad people is maybe 88.

Posted by: goodepicwashpost | January 12, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Economists would say "it's the incentives, stupid."

Kids on the block would say "Don't hate the playa, hate the game."

It's ridiculous that we're tolerating a government that only works if politicians refuse to act in their own rational self-interest. I can promise you, that's not a government that's going to accomplish much of value.

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 12, 2011 1:05 PM | Report abuse

There is something terribly wrong with a mindset that willfully denies one's principles in order maintain or obtain political power.

This sounds naive, I know, but Churchill had the same problem and was no better at solving it.

Alistair Cooke summed up our political system in his epic history of America in three words: Compromise. Compromise. Compromise.

That principle now seems to be as dead as he is.

Posted by: tomcammarata | January 12, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra is being extremely charitable today, both in the Palin piece and in this treatise on McConnell. Where I quibble with the conclusion is that McConnell can only be described as a rational actor if you accept the criteria that the only way to get ahead is to force the other party to fail. This is a textbook strawman argument: establish the 'facts' to support your case, ignore any facts inconvenient to your case and voila! The argument is won! McConnell is just another nice guy forced by the system to work for policy failure that will delay our economic recovery and kill good ideas just because the other side suggested them first.

Sure. It's all the systems fault.

I can't help but notice that McConnell is also resisting change to the system. But, hey, he's just another rational actor; don't blame him....

Posted by: bsimon1 | January 12, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Here is a sixth comment...

For all your focus on filibusters, what about what Jim Bunning or Richard Shelby did to shut down the Senate. Even if the Ezra Klein super-filibuster reform was voted into place, there is always some rando Senate rule (remember the one about ending committee hearings after 2 o'clock in the afternoon) to manipulating to slow down...

Actually, I'm curious. Which Senator of 111th Congress that voted against closure yet ended up voted for the actual bill the most. Dick Lugar? Bob Corker? Susan Collins? or Blanche Lincoln? Ben Nelson?

Posted by: Corey_NY | January 12, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse

As a careful reader, mostly-lurker, sometimes-commenter who was saddened by your #marketresearch tweet, I just want to say that I thought this post was a very interesting perspective. A lot more interesting than Sarah Palin's latest not-well-thought-out comment and the fake controversy surrounding it. But I didn't feel the need to comment on either - you make good, strong points and I didn't have much of anything to add.

But hey, since I'm commenting anyway: In particular, this McConnell post was interesting because I've come to absolutely despise what McConnell stands for in politics, and I assumed it was without precedent. But then, I'm only 23 years old, and don't have a very long political memory. This post was a reality check.

Posted by: madjoy | January 12, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

You have lousy Senators, you'll get a lousy Senate.

That is one perspective on the institution. Another is that there are no bad people, only broken institutions in which rational people act in the only ways that make sense for them.

Commentators who do not work in the Senate and have no loyalty to the place or its traditions naturally tend toward the latter point of view. The reason for this is simply that they object to the Senate not working in the way they think it should. They don't want to get into the weeds of of Senate personalities and how they do or do not make the institution work; they don't wish to offend anyone. They simply think the institution should change until it does what they want it to.

Which, ironically, is also what Mitch McConnell thinks. So do a substantial number of his colleagues. Like a plurality of American politicians, the main event for McConnell is now the campaign; what the Senate is for is preparing for the next campaign. Quite a few members of the Republican Senate caucus focused on campaign politics can't reasonably be expected to do anything else, though Sen. Vitter seems to have developed relationships with prostitutes during the course of his public life and Sen. Ensign succeeded in seducing his friend's wife. Lousy Senators, lousy Senate.

Of the minority of Senators not wholly preoccupied with campaign politics, many (and most of the Republicans) are timid, frightened old men -- Cochran, Lugar, Alexander -- who are attached to the Senate but will not fight for it. As Mann and Ornstein demonstrated in their book of a couple of years ago, what they call "institutional patriotism" has evaporated on both sides of the Capitol.

The Senate has rules, procedures and precedents built up literally over centuries. They work. But they only work if they are treated with respect, as a kind of operating manual for an institution that is at the very heart of American representative democracy. Senate Democrats have had their own deficiencies in recent years, but Senate Republicans gave up their institution to the service of the last Republican President and have now surrendered it to the consultants, pollsters and "strategists" hard at work preparing for the next Republican Presidential campaign.
They have abused the Senate, and trying to change the Senate without challenging their abuse is like trying to make a car safer while leaving its drunk driver behind the wheel.

Viewing the question in this way risks offending people; taken far enough, it could lead to hard feelings and broken friendships, (and for journalists, unreturned phone calls. There is no end to the horror). That's OK. It's all a small price to pay for facing a critical problem squarely: lousy Senators, lousy Senate. Frighten some of them and shame the rest, and then see how much damage someone like McConnell can do.

Posted by: jbritt3 | January 12, 2011 6:36 PM | Report abuse

I really disagree with you on this one Ezra.

We do not elect Senators so that they are focused on perpetuating their incumbency. We elect them to solve problems. And with the rise in the use of the filibuster, they are not solving as many problems as they could or should.

Your conclusion that McConnell isn't bad because he's effective at achieving a different goal -- limiting the President to one term -- is an ends-justify-the-means analysis I wouldn't normally expect from you. You also just accept that his goal is legitimate, which is also a mistake.

I thought Newt Gingrich was a bad politician for employing these tactics, and I think McConnell is, too (though I had already accepted the Darth Vader persona of McConnell based on his long opposition to campaign finance laws). I think less of any politician who promotes partisanship over public obligation, and I think more people ought to insist, via the ballot box, that the politicians put the public interest first.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | January 13, 2011 12:22 AM | Report abuse

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