Mitch McConnell is right. But will Republicans listen to him?

October 21, 2013

Mitch McConnell isn't charismatic. He's not dashing. He's not an amazing orator. He is, however, the most powerful Republican in Kentucky -- and in the U.S. Senate. There's one reason for that: He is his party's best strategic mind.


Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is followed by reporters after agreeing to the framework of a deal to avoid default and reopen the government on Capitol Hill on Oct. 16. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

So, when McConnell speaks, we listen. Like on Sunday during an appearance on "Face the Nation" when host Bob Schieffer asked McConnell about the damage done to the GOP by the government shutdown. Here's McConnell's response:

"Look, shutting down the government, in my view, is not conservative policy. I don't think a two-week paid vacation for federal employees is conservative policy. A number of us were saying back in July that this strategy could not and would not work, and of course it didn't. So there will not be another government shutdown. You can count on that."

McConnell's answer to Schieffer was aimed directly at his Senate and House colleagues. And here's what he meant: You tried it your way. It didn't work. I told you it wouldn't. From here on out, we do it my way.

Just in case anyone in his party missed that message, McConnell circled back to his original point a few minutes later. "We have a math problem in the Senate in getting rid of Obamacare," McConnell told Schieffer. "It's the following math problem, 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans."

McConnell's advocacy for a sort of Republican realpolitik is, quite clearly, the right approach for his party in Congress.  The shutdown was, by any measure, a political disaster for Republicans and one that they simply cannot afford to repeat again. (We mean that literally. If Republicans forced another government shutdown over President Obama's health-care law, it would almost certainly negate their chances of winning the Senate back in 2014 and might also jeopardize their chances of holding the House next November.) At some point, principle must give way to practicality, and now is that time for Republicans.

In an era past, the leader of Senate Republicans saying enough is enough would ensure that the raucous rank and file would get in line behind their leader out of fear of the political consequences of not doing so. But that era is gone.  The likes of Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Mike Lee (Utah) have made quite clear over the past year that they don't take their orders from McConnell and, in fact, seem to revel -- at least at times -- in bucking their own party establishment.  Cruz has parlayed his anti-establishment stance into a national following and talk of a 2016 presidential bid.

Knowing that new reality, McConnell seemed to offer an olive branch of sorts to Cruz when asked about his colleague. "We had some tactical differences about how to get at the repeal of Obamacare," McConnell said. "But the fact that we have some tactical differences doesn't mean we don't all share the same goal."

The question that remains is whether McConnell can -- whether by the carrot or the stick -- bring Cruz, Lee and the handful of other GOP Senators who share their views into line. Both Cruz and Lee have insisted that the fight over Obamacare is far from over and, if the last month is any indicator, they will target mid-January -- when the measure temporarily funding the government runs out -- as the next pinch point in this battle. McConnell has made abundantly clear where he stands -- and where he believes that party should stand -- on shutting down the government again. But can he convince the likes of Cruz that he's right?

Fixbits: 

President Obama will speak Monday about the technical problems with HealthCare.gov.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the problems with the rollout of Obamacare are "unacceptable."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) endorsed McConnell's reelection bid.

State Sen. Neil Riser (R) and businessman Vance McAllister (R) advanced to a runoff in Louisiana's 5th district special election.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper editorial board's choice for Virginia governor? "None of the above."

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Cruz disagree on Obamacare.

The Senate Conservatives Fund raised $2.1 million in September.

Former vice president Dick Cheney said his current health is "a miracle."

Politics and Pints is tonight!

Must-reads: 

"HealthCare.gov’s glitches prompt Obama to call in more computer experts" -- Amy Goldstein, Washington Post

"Gay rights supporters wage a quiet campaign to push Republicans to the middle" -- Peter Wallsten, Washington Post

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Josh Hicks · October 20, 2013