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Posted at 2:24 PM ET, 01/26/2011

Mitch McConnell: The most honest man in Washington

By Ezra Klein

Thumbnail image for mcconnelltaxcuts.JPG

There are politicians who lie and exaggerate and spin. Who never tell you what they're really doing, or why they're doing it. Who wrap their partisanship in the prettiest of platitudes and swear that they're looking for agreement when in fact they're looking for victory. Mitch McConnell is not one of them. Mitch McConnell, in fact, is the most honest man in Washington. He seems to almost delight in explaining how the Senate really works in this day or age. And at this point, thanks to his laudable efforts, there's really no excuse for anyone to remain confused.

There was the time, shortly before the midterm election, that he said that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." There was the time he told the Atlantic's Josh Green that “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals, because we thought -- correctly, I think -- that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan."

If these were mere missteps, McConnell's communications staff would've scolded him and told him to be more careful with the press. But they're not. On Tuesday, McConnell sat down with Politico's Mike Allen for a free-ranging discussion on politics. Here's what he said:

MCCONNELL: If the president is willing to do what I and my members would do anyway, we’re not going to say no and –

ALLEN: But that’s not much of a concession. That’s not bargaining, to just give you what you want.

MCCONNELL: Um, I like to think I’m a pretty good negotiator.

Those three comments outline the three most important dynamics driving the modern political system. (1) The top priority of the minority party is getting back into power. (2) Being bipartisan is bad politics, as it makes the country think the majority is doing a good job. And (3) bipartisanship increasingly relies on the lowest-common denominator, the things everyone "would do anyway," not the things they can be persuaded to do as part of a more ambitious deal.

None of this would matter very much except for the presence of the filibuster. If not for the filibuster, it wouldn't much matter that the Senate minority leader was an unreconstructed partisan who called bipartisanship bad politics and compromise a dirty word. And so it's notable that the leadership of both parties have decided to leave the filibuster -- and, thus, the system -- just the way it is. McConnell doesn't present himself as some brave truth-teller. This is just the way things are, and he sees no problem with it, and thus no reason to change it. The question is why so many of his colleagues appear to agree.

Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press.

By Ezra Klein  | January 26, 2011; 2:24 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Perhaps new policy wasn't really the point of the State of the Union


Right. Ours is now a full-throated parliamentary system, but for whatever reason McConnell is the only person who got the memo.

Posted by: Jasper999 | January 26, 2011 2:56 PM | Report abuse

You should write about this more. I have not commented on your posts in about 16 months, and I just wanted to to say that you NEED to write about this issue even more. This issue being the Senate's dysfunctions and political incentives.

You were one of the most detailed and important voices during the Health Reform debate, and in many ways this is a similar issue.

I realize this issue can be depressing as a citizen, but please continue to highlight this issue. Highlight the issue with your voice, with the voice of other thinkers, and with whatever other tools you can use.

Your voice could make a huge impact on this front.

Thank you Ezra!

Posted by: powers1616 | January 26, 2011 3:14 PM | Report abuse

I'm shocked! shocked! to learn there's politics going on in the Congress!

It's nice to know that as we progress into the second decade of the 21st century that our congressmen are regressing back to 19th century tactics.

So, besides no hope for practical help to the unemployed, we can now be sure that there will be no reform of the Senate's rules, thus guaranteeing a miserable status quo.

Gives new meaning to American Exceptionalism.

Posted by: tomcammarata | January 26, 2011 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Honestly, at what point do US Senators get embarrassed that the House is far, far more functional than they are?

Seriously, the House had to save them from themselves to pass health reform. It was one of the most pathetic performances I've ever seen by a lawmaking body. And the lame duck was another national embarrassment, a case study in "um, explain to me why we couldn't have done ALL of this sooner?" All these policy priorities, formerly impossible, suddenly became possible (and downright moderate!) once Democrats had been publicly humiliated and repudiated, once they'd lost the House...and yet today we see Democratic Senators going to the wall to protect the institutional procedures that make their party's continued humiliation and frustration of its goals possible!

Democratic Senators as a group need their heads examined. It's like they get off on public humiliation and failure.

They are putting protection of the filibuster, of all things, in front of having a functional democracy, in front of solving the problems their constituents elected them to solve, in front of the policy priorities their constituents elected them to pursue.

It's sick and twisted.

Posted by: theorajones1 | January 26, 2011 3:29 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster protects the party in the minority. It is no longer a tool serving the consciences of individuals.

Here's where we have come:
1) The PARTY is the most important entity. A corollary: Senators that act (vote) as individuals are a threat to the PARTY.
2) Partisanship serves the PARTY. The most important job is to make the other PARTY fail so you gain power back.
3) The filibuster serves partisanship. It forces party unity critical and concentrates power for the PARTY.
4) So, the filibuster must be protected by the PARTY (doesn't matter which one).

Weakening the ability of our congress-people to act as individuals and represent their constituents helps the PARTY. Sure it weakens the democracy and the country, but it serves the PARTY (doesn't matter which one) which has become the ultimate goal of our senators. Perhaps conveniently, a highly partisan environment serves the interests of the elite: it's easier to manipulate a single entity (the republican or democrat party) to make the government serve your interests. It also serves the interest of the leaders of the PARTY because power concentrates to them.

Solution? Don't know. But I'm for anything that weakens the PARTY (both of them): simplified voting, campaign finance reform, public disgrace, whatever.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | January 26, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Back when he was not busy trying to stay out of jail, Tom Delay defined bipartisanship as "we write the legislation and they vote for it." same sort of thing

Posted by: bdballard | January 26, 2011 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Back when he was not busy trying to stay out of jail, Tom Delay defined bipartisanship as "we write the legislation and they vote for it." same sort of thing

Posted by: bdballard | January 26, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

It's a distant memory, but I seem to recall when the success of the country was the most important thing and your party achieving political power was the SECOND most important. It really seems like the Republicans want to do as much damage to the country as possible, then blame it on Obama knowing that Obama would never, NEVER try to put the blame on them, lest he appear partisan.

Posted by: DavidinCambridge | January 26, 2011 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Well, it's true that he doesn't exactly lay on the charm but it doesn't seem accurate to conclude that he's telling the truth...that he'll only do things with the Pres that they would do anyway. Take the lame duck tax bill -- he concluded that he needed to give the Dems a handful of things...dealing with unemployment and tax cuts/subsidies for lower income order to get the extension of the income tax for the $250k crowd. If he thinks he needs to compromise to get something important, he'll compromise.

Posted by: wswest | January 26, 2011 7:33 PM | Report abuse

How could someone with such a weak chin have achieved so much in life?

Posted by: ThomasEN | January 26, 2011 10:31 PM | Report abuse

from the HuffPost on the filibuster reform resolution:
"a resolution has to be placed on the Senate calendar and to place something on the calendar you need unanimous consent"
Can someone please show me where this 'unanimous consent' clause is in the Constitution? Why was this 'rule' imposed against a simple majority vote?

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 27, 2011 1:51 PM | Report abuse

I'm actually kind of hoping that the Republicans take the Senate majority in 2012, just so that they can abolish the filibuster and the 2014 Senate can get around to accomplishing anything.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | January 27, 2011 4:38 PM | Report abuse

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