SUMMARY: “Last night was a resounding victory for McConnell not because he sabotaged the Senate but because it confirmed what he already knew: Obama’s ideas are naïve and destructive, and therefore unpopular. McConnell’s refusal to allow his GOP minority caucus to be a rubber stamp for the disastrous liberal agenda was what stopped the midterms from being a pox on both houses and instead a referendum on those responsible for the wreckage: the Democrats.”
Commentary Magazine: How Mitch McConnell Outsmarted Obama, by Seth Mandel – Nov 5, 2014
Republicans–and some desperate Democrats who saw the writing on the wall–didn’t need anyone to tell them to make last night’s midterms about President Obama. His unpopularity was not in doubt, and his responsibility for manifold governmental failures over the last several years was undeniable. And yet, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell still deserves a large share of the credit for what may seem like an obvious anti-Obama election. How McConnell outsmarted the president and saved the Senate (at least temporarily) is one of the midterms’ more fascinating subplots.
As Jonathan Tobin mentioned late last night, McConnell belongs at the top of the list of winners, while Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid is second only to Obama in the losers column. Yet the efforts of both men to bring about that result are still widely–and in some cases, probably purposely–misunderstood. A perfect distillation of how to get the McConnell strategy exactly wrong comes via Vox, unsurprisingly. There, Matt Yglesias sums up the Democratic spin on how the Senate has been run by both Reid and McConnell. The spin is unambiguously false, but it does show the extent to which Reid’s mendacious propaganda actually convinced many liberals who don’t grasp the granular details of the Senate. Here’s Yglesias:
A Republican comeback of this scale was by no means guaranteed. In the winter of 2008-2009, the leaders of the Obama transition effort had a theory as to how things would go and mainstream Washington agreed with them.
The theory went like this. With large majorities in the House and Senate, it was obvious that lots of Democratic bills would pass. But the White House would be generous and make concessions to Republicans who were willing to leap on the bandwagon. Consequently, incumbent Republicans from states Obama won (Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana, Nevada) would be eager to cut deals in which they backed Obama bills in exchange for key concessions. With that process under way, many Republicans who weren’t even that vulnerable would be eager to cut deals as well, in search of a piece of the action. As a result, bills would pass the Senate with large 70- to 75-vote majorities, and Obama would be seen as the game-changing president who healed American politics and got things done.
McConnell’s counter plan was to prevent those deals. As McConnell told Josh Green, the key to eroding Obama’s popularity was denying him the sheen of bipartisanship, and that meant keep Republicans united in opposition[.]
Yglesias then quotes McConnell as saying “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” and adds himself:
To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked. Six years into the affair, we now take it for granted that nothing will pass on a bipartisan basis, no appointment will go through smoothly, and everything the administration tries to get done will take the form of a controversial use of executive power.
It’s quite possible Yglesias actually believes this. Many on the left have been thoroughly confused by how the Senate works, and they are almost always eager to believe the most negative portrayal of Republicans out there. But rather than Obama being generously and genuinely bipartisan, what happened was that he took his election to be a mandate for his own plans– “I won,” as he famously said.
And so the Obama strategy, with Reid’s help in the Senate, was to get what Yglesias calls the “sheen” of bipartisanship: get a very liberal bill that consists mostly of handouts to liberal interest groups and greatly increases presidential power on an issue, and pretend it’s the work of both parties by offering token, vote-buying concessions to convince a few Republicans to put their names on the overall bill. McConnell wasn’t buying it, because he understood that Obama had no intention of actually crafting bills that would prominently feature conservative ideas–the two sides were too far apart anyway.
McConnell also understood that Obama’s ideas were terrible, and would be unpopular. In some cases, we knew the bills were unpopular before they even went up for vote. Obama wanted an insurance policy (no ObamaCare pun intended): to have his name on the “achievement” if it turned out to be popular but to have Republicans own its passage in case it wasn’t. It was cynical and dishonest, and it didn’t succeed because Obama fooled his fans in the media but not McConnell.
Additionally, as anyone who follows the Senate closely knows, Reid’s strategy was to put unprecedented limits on the minority (Republicans) in the legislating process. Republicans were shut out of the traditional bipartisan role and also shut out of the amendment process. Reid didn’t want Republican input at all and didn’t want debate either. The plain fact is that it was Reid who “decided to break” the Senate, since Republicans weren’t willing to simply add their names to Obama’s legislative wish lists. And in order to protect constitutionally suspect legislation in the courts, Reid tossed out the filibuster as well.
Last night was a resounding victory for McConnell not because he sabotaged the Senate but because it confirmed what he already knew: Obama’s ideas are naïve and destructive, and therefore unpopular. McConnell’s refusal to allow his GOP minority caucus to be a rubber stamp for the disastrous liberal agenda was what stopped the midterms from being a pox on both houses and instead a referendum on those responsible for the wreckage: the Democrats.