Negotiations about the “fiscal cliff” are set to begin soon, and Mitch McConnell is already signaling that he doesn’t intend to budge or cooperate. If anything, in the wake of Tuesday’s election, he is signaling that Republicans will adopt a strategy of categorical opposition even faster than he did after Obama’s victory four years ago:
“The American people did two things: they gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve during his first four years in office, and they preserved Republican control of the House of Representatives,” McConnell said in a statement. “The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the President’s first term, they have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control.”
Of course, McConnell doesn’t have the leverage here; the momentum lies with Obama and Senate Democrats, who will enter 2013 with a larger and more liberal majority than before.
McConnell’s strategy of opposition and obstruction was the definition of high risk, high reward. The goal of refusing cooperation with Obama was to generate public discontent with Democratic “partisanship,” and turn the Obama agenda — the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank — into an albatross for the Democratic Party. The hope was that, in 2012, a Republican presidential nominee would use that discontent to run on a platform of bipartisan unity, and indeed, in the final weeks of his campaign, Mitt Romney did exactly that.
But this potential reward — a one-term Obama presidency — was counterbalanced by a massive risk. The practical effect of refusing cooperation with Democrats was to force them to adopt unusual amount of party unity. It’s not hard to imagine a world where moderate Democrats watered down Obamacare to win over Republicans. In fact, this almost happened: Democrats were desperate for Republican votes following Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, and would have reduced the scope of the Affordable Care Act if it meant bipartisan support. But by refusing all offers for a compromise, McConnell forced Democrats to negotiate with themselves, and tough out the political circumstances. The result was a health care bill that — despite liberal disappointments — was more progressive than it might have been.
This pattern repeated itself throughout Obama’s first term, and left him with a set of partisan achievements that were more liberal out of necessity. Of course, if McConnell’s strategy had worked out — and public discontent forced Obama out of office — this wouldn’t have mattered; Republicans could just repeal the Obama agenda and move forward. But, as we saw on Tuesday, Obama was reelected with a larger and more liberal majority in the Senate. As such, the Obama agenda — which Republicans could have weakened and watered down — is certain to survive and become an integral part of American life.
In other words, McConnell’s strategy of categorical opposition has been a tactical and strategic failure. Not only will Obama stay president for the next four years, but he will implement the final plank of the American welfare state — universal access to health insurance — without Republican input. The Obama agenda is here to stay, and to a large degree, Republicans have Mitch McConnell to blame.