When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks, I’ve learned to listen. It’s not that the jowly Kentuckian is such an inspiring orator. Quite the opposite, in fact. With his sleepy drone and laconic rhythm, he’s the rare politician who usually seems to be boring even himself. Nor is he the back-slapping, yarn-spinning sort that frequently prospers in the Senate. McConnell’s got all the warmth of an ice floe.
But then, McConnell doesn’t need to be inspiring or jocular. Shouldn’t be, in fact. What he’s saying isn’t inspirational or funny. It’s grim and divisive. And that’s why it’s so important. In a city split between liars and idealists, McConnell is the rarest of all things: an honest cynic. He’s the only powerful politician in America willing to tell you how Washington actually works, and that’s why he needs to be heard.
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.
McConnell’s first brush with radical truth-telling came in October 2010, when he told National Journal that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” McConnell quickly qualified his remarks, although he never quite apologized for them.
Nor should he have. McConnell wasn’t articulating a radical new theory of politics. He was telling us how he and his party were already voting. Consider the dozens of elected Republicans who, at one time or another, supported an individual mandate for health-care reform, cap-and-trade for carbon emissions and tax cuts for stimulative purposes. Over the past three years, almost all of them have renounced their former views. Unless you understand McConnell’s argument, you can’t understand their actions.
A year ago, I broke down a vote on unemployment benefits by looking at senators from states with higher-than-average and lower-than average jobless rates. It was totally random. Then I reshuffled the votes by party. The randomness disappeared. Senators aren’t voting their consciences or their states. They’re voting their party, which means they’re voting their party’s incentives. Democrats won’t prosper unless Obama prospers. And Republicans can’t succeed unless Obama fails.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that McConnell understands only partisanship. He’s a shrewder analyst of bipartisanship than anyone else in Washington.
Many here understand a “bipartisan bill” to mean one with ideas from both parties. On deficit reduction, for instance, it would mean Democrats give in on spending cuts if Republicans give in on tax increases. McConnell understands it to be one with votes from both parties. That’s why he can keep a straight face while saying something like “President Obama needs to decide between his goal of higher taxes, or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit. He can’t have both.”
McConnell is right. Voters don’t spend their time conducting detailed analyses of legislation and neither — let’s be honest — do the media. Instead, both groups take their cues from political leaders. If the Republicans call a bill partisan and refuse to support it, the bill gets reported as partisan no matter its content.