Republicans embraced it. Democrats denounced it as rank obstructionism. Either way, it has led the two parties, as much as any other factor, to where they are right now. Republicans are monolithically against the health care legislation, leaving the president and his party executing parliamentary back flips to get it passed, conservatives revived, liberals wondering what happened.
In the process, Mr. McConnell, 68, a Kentuckian more at home plotting tactics in the cloakroom than writing legislation in a committee room or exhorting crowds on the campaign trail, has come to embody a kind of oppositional politics that critics say has left voters cynical about Washington, the Senate all but dysfunctional and the Republican Party without a positive agenda or message.
But in the short run at least, his approach has worked. For more than a year, he pleaded and cajoled to keep his caucus in line. He deployed poll data. He warned against the lure of the short-term attention to be gained by going bipartisan, and linked Republican gains in November to showing voters they could hold the line against big government.
On the major issues — not just health care, but financial regulation and the economic stimulus package, among others — Mr. McConnell has held Republican defections to somewhere between minimal and nonexistent, allowing him to slow the Democratic agenda if not defeat aspects of it. He has helped energize the Republican base, expose divisions among Democrats and turn the health care fight into a test of the Democrats’ ability to govern.
“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.”
Mr. McConnell said the unity was essential in dealing with Democrats on “things like the budget, national security and then ultimately, obviously, health care.”
Still, he said, his party had offered Democrats a chance for a deal on health care but blamed them as being inflexible. Democrats and the White House heavily courted Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, who voted for an early version of the bill but later broke with Democrats. Democratic leaders, including the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said they did not think Republicans were ever serious about trying to strike a deal.
Even Mr. McConnell’s fellow Republicans say somewhat admiringly that he can be a secretive and coldly calculating tactician with an eye for political openings, someone more consumed by political strategy than ideology or philosophy.
He is in many ways the mirror image of his Democratic counterpart, Mr. Reid. Both are experts at the inside game who struggle with the burden of trying to control a political caucus at a time when legislative leaders no longer have the brute power they once had and senators are hailed for acting like mavericks.
“Mitch tends to play things close to the vest,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.
The extent of Republican unity to date is attributable to some degree to Democratic missteps, as well as to the rise of the Tea Party movement, which has exerted tremendous pressure on Republicans not to do anything that might give comfort to the president and his party.
But it is also testimony to how Mr. McConnell has been able to draw on 25 years of Congressional savvy to display a mastery of legislative maneuvering. Mr. McConnell rejected the criticism that his approach is all about scoring political points by denying Mr. Obama any victories. His opposition, he said, is rooted in a principled belief that Mr. Obama is pushing the nation in the wrong direction.
Building a Strategy
“To the extent that they want to do things that we think are in the political center and would be helpful to the country, we’ll be helpful,” Mr. McConnell said of the Democrats. “To the extent they are trying to turn us into a Western European country, we are not going to be helpful.”
He consistently told fellow Republicans they needed to win back independent voters and lapsed Republicans who, he said, have shifted only temporarily to the Democratic camp. To win them over, he suggested, Republicans should emphasize issues that resonated with them at a time of insecurity, including government spending, debt, government bailouts and terrorism.
The question now is how much of an enduring gain Republicans might get from Mr. McConnell’s blocking strategy. For all his efforts, Democrats could very well pass a health care overhaul in the next week. While he has drawn sharp ideological contrasts that have rallied conservatives after their Congressional defeats in 2006 and 2008, Mr. McConnell is a long way from capturing control of the Senate in November.
More fundamentally, Mr. McConnell’s strategy has left Republicans at risk of being tagged as pure obstructionists and a party without a positive agenda.
“Senator McConnell is their inspiration, their enforcer and their enabler,” Mr. Durbin said.
Yet such critiques do not disturb Mr. McConnell, who has for years been raked over the editorial coals around the country for his signature opposition to campaign finance law changes. On the wall of his private Senate office, where most lawmakers hang photographs of themselves with presidents and dignitaries, Mr. McConnell instead has framed originals of venomous editorial cartoons that portray him in most unflattering terms.
The strategy that has brought Senate Republicans where they are today began when they gathered, beaten and dispirited, at the Library of Congress two weeks before Mr. Obama’s inauguration. They had lost seven seats in November, another was teetering, and they were about to go up against an extraordinarily popular new president and an emboldened Democratic Congress.
“We came in shellshocked,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “There was sort of a feeling of ‘every man for himself.’ Mitch early on in this session came up with a game plan to make us relevant with 40 people. He said if we didn’t stick together on big things, we wouldn’t be relevant.”
A First Test
As the year went on, Mr. McConnell spent hours listening to the worries and ideas of Republicans, urging them not to be seduced by the attention-grabbing possibilities of cutting a bipartisan deal. “I think the reason my members are feeling really good,” he said, “is they believe that the reward for playing team ball this year was the reversal of the political environment and the possibility that we will have a bigger team next year.”
On the first big test of his strategy, Senate passage of the economic stimulus bill, Mr. McConnell lost three Republicans; one of them, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, would soon leave the party. Yet before long, Republicans in both houses had become a monolith of opposition.
The president’s first budget proposal presented a juicy target in early 2009. At a spring meeting with Republican leaders in his office, Mr. McConnell invoked, as is his custom, a collection of poll data to argue that the budget could be undone with a simple phrase that would crystallize public concerns: “spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much.”
That phrase, Mr. McConnell said, should be invoked by Republican lawmakers every time they saw a television camera or an open notebook.
“Good politics is repetition,” Mr. McConnell said. When there were signs of Republicans breaking from the ranks — like when Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa led a delegation of Republicans in negotiations with Democrats about a deal on health care — Mr. McConnell would keep close watch.
Mr. Grassley said Mr. McConnell worked patiently with him, asking only that he not agree to a public option or “rationing of health care” — two positions Mr. Grassley was never going to accept. But Mr. McConnell also said Mr. Grassley and Republicans should not make the mistake that Democrats had and present a single, big-idea bill that could draw all kinds of criticism. In the end, no deal was struck.
Some Ups and Downs
As the months went on, Mr. McConnell would show up at weekly meetings of his conference with a chart tracking poll numbers that, by summertime, showed that support for a health care overhaul had flipped. With their approach producing tangible benefits, Republicans were driven even more strongly to remain united.
Just before the summer recess, on July 21, Mr. McConnell used the weekly luncheon of Senate Republicans in the L.B.J. Room off the Senate floor to list the fruits of their labor. His PowerPoint presentation showed that the president’s approval rating was down and that Republicans were gaining on Democrats on the question of which party voters would prefer to see controlling Congress. “We came up with a plan, stuck to it, and now we’re starting to see results,” the presentation noted.
Still, there have been moments of doubt. Just before Christmas, Republican senators began badgering Mr. McConnell to halt maneuvers blocking a final vote on the Senate health bill. They wanted to get home, and they were worried that they looked overly obstructionist. In meeting after meeting in the Capitol, Mr. McConnell, a devoted fan of University of Louisville basketball, urged his colleagues to keep playing “team ball.” He reiterated the message he had employed for a year — the party’s resurgence depended on unity, and Republicans needed to be patient.
They listened. By the time the health bill was approved by the Senate on Christmas Eve with zero Republican votes, Democrats had been forced to cut questionable intraparty deals and jump through legislative hoops in an ugly process that helped sour the public on the party and its legislation.
Mr. McConnell, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984 with the help of a Roger Ailes-produced advertisement that showed bloodhounds searching for his opponent, has had his ups and downs as a leader. Senate Republicans lost 14 seats in the last two elections when he was the No. 2 Republican and then the party chief, and Mr. Specter jumped ship on his watch.
But Mr. McConnell is credited with a very effective run over the last 15 months — though being minority leader has distinct advantages over being in charge of making the Senate function.
“Throwing grenades is easier than catching them,” acknowledged Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a fellow member of the Republican leadership.
“Today’s news report on Republican obstructionist tactics offers further proof of what we already know – even before President Obama was sworn in, Mitch McConnell and the GOP developed a strategy to push the GOP caucus to reflexively oppose the President’s legislative initiatives in the hope of securing short-term political gains. This is appalling—but not surprising—news. Senator McConnell’s strategy is the embodiment of what is wrong with Washington – instead of fighting for his constituents or working to solve America’s problems, his priority is defeating the President by obstructionist procedural tactics.
“We are facing challenging times and now is not the time to play political games. President Obama and Congressional Democrats have worked to stabilize and rebuild the economy, create jobs, rein in the excesses of Wall Street, and reform the health insurance system to reduce skyrocketing premium increases while giving Americans greater control over their own care. Every step of the way, Republicans have fought tooth and nail to hold up Democrats’ plans to get our country back on track. By rejecting any effort to work with the President on a bipartisan basis, the Republicans have failed the American people. This is not leadership, and it’s not what the American people want. It’s the reason Americans have lost faith in Washington. Changing this approach of politics above results, rigid partisanship, and protecting special interests at all costs is why voters sent President Obama to the White House to change the way government works.
“Senator McConnell is playing these games at the expense of the American people. It’s time for Senator McConnell and his Republican colleagues to put politics aside and start working with the President and Democrats to solve our nation’s problems.”
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