Jonathan Chait

McConnell The Master

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Today's New York Times lays out Mitch McConnell's overarching strategy:

Before the health care fight, before the economic stimulus package, before President Obama even took office, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, had a strategy for his party: use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation....

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.”

First of all, McConnell is correct. He has played his hand as well as it could be played. As he suggests, the public is not well-attuned to the details of legislation, and tends to base its opinions on broad heuristics. If they see a bill that has zero bipartisan support, and see democrats arguing amongst themselves for month after month, they will assume the Democratic plans are probably bad. So the strategy of cajoling his caucus to withhold all support has made the process more partisan and contentious, ultimately hurting Democrats.

Polls over the last year have shown the Republican Party remaining highly unpopular, but the public also taking out its frustrations on the Democrats. McConnell probably realizes that public opinion is going to focus on the majority party, and thus the dangers of seeming "too obstructionist" are minimal. The benefits of actually obstructing the majority's agenda, or at least delaying it and making it more partisan, are much higher than the costs.

Asa policy matter, it was also clear from the outset that given the Democrats' enormous majorities and the economic crisis, they were going to lose a lot of seats in 2010, especially if McConnell's political strategy succeeded. The main question was how much change they could enact during this two-year stretch. McConnell pursued a completely unprecedented strategy of filibustering everything -- low-level appointments, measures that would go on to pass 97-0, etc. -- in a simple attempt to run out the clock. This, too, has worked.

Let me be clear about something: I am not blaming McConnell. Establishment Washington tends to view these matters through a moralistic lens -- obstructionism means the minority party is too mean and selfish, and the solution is for them to start acting nice and public-spirited. That's not the right way to look at it. Electoral politics is a zero-sum competition. Most democracies have systems where the opposing parties work in open conflict to each other, and, contra David Brooks, this does not result in Hutu vs. Tutsi slaughter.

Yes, there was a long period in American politics where racial cleavages created a situation where the parties had little internal ideological cohesion, and as a result Washington developed a series of cultural norms discouraging the practice of cohesive parties maximizing their electoral self-interest. Over time, though, such social norms will never hold up. Ultimately, the parties are going to maximize their partisan self-interest as allowed under the rules. If you don't like the result, you need to change the rules.

The next time Democrats find themselves in the minority, there's going to be a lot of establishment pressure not to follow the McConnell model. Be bipartisan. Don't obstruct. That would be terrible advice. I hope that Democrats would remember 2009-2010 well enough to favor a reform of the Senate to disallow holds, the filibuster, and other counter-majoritarian tactics. But if they can't succeed in changing the rules, they should follow McConnell's example, because he has shown the way to do it.

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