The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mitch McConnell’s grand, ingenious strategy

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Here’s Mitch McConnell, sobbing hot tears in Politico magazine about the long lost days when legislation used to pass the Senate with bipartisan support:

When you look at the vote tallies for some of the more far-reaching legislation over the past century, for example, the Senate was broadly in agreement.
Medicare and Medicaid were both approved with the support of about half the members of the minority. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed with the votes of 30 out of 32 members of the Republican minority. Only six senators voted against the Social Security Act. Only eight voted against the Americans With Disabilities Act.
None of this happened by throwing these bills together in a back room, then sending them to the floor with a stopwatch running. It happened through a laborious process of persuasion and coalition-building. It took time and patience and hard work. Importantly, it also guaranteed that every one of these laws had stability and wouldn’t be endlessly relitigated.
Now compare that to the attitude behind Obamacare. When Democrats couldn’t convince Republicans that this bill was worth supporting as written, they plowed ahead on their own and passed it on a party-line vote.
That’s why the chaos this law has visited on our country is not just tragic, it was entirely predictable. Chaos will always be the result if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side.

Ed Kilgore has a very good response, noting that McConnell and the GOP are forever searching for ways to undermine these very social programs, and that they wouldn’t have passed under today’s GOP.

I’d add one point, though. Guess who has usefully confirmed for us that Republicans actively worked to deny Obama bipartisan support for his proposals for strategic reasons? Mitch McConnell, that’s who. Here is what McConnell said just after the 2010 elections, back when his strategy was looking fearsomely brilliant:

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

The complaint McConnell makes in his Politico op ed is best understood as the goal of what had been his strategy all along. The whole GOP gamble of the Obama era was to do everything possible to deny Obama bipartisan support for anything, not just to make it harder to rack up accomplishments, but also to ideologically insulate Republicans from what they expected would be an epic, never-ending policy catastrophe. That catastrophe would manifest itself in a failure of the economy to turn around fast enough; the inability of Obama to make the system function after vowing to change Washington; and of course, in the epic disaster that was and is Obamacare.

This would be blamed on apocalyptic levels of philosophical disagreement and on Obama’s radical departure from American governing traditions.  The idea wasn’t just that Republicans were opposing Obama for garden variety political or policy reasons, but that they were deeply alarmed at the president’s agenda, which was ideologically unhinged from the country’s founding values and threatened to transform the country into something no longer recognizably American.

Maintaining undiluted Republican opposition to Obama’s agenda was central to maintaining that fiction. (The ongoing assault on Tea Party dogma from Michael Gerson and Michael Strain is interesting because it directly calls out this fiction, as Jonathan Chait has argued.) We know this was the game plan because McConnell told us so himself, though he didn’t put it that way.

This strategy didn’t work out as planned in 2012, of course. But it remains alive and well all the same. Since the Affordable Care Act cannot turn out to be anything other than an unmitigated catastrophe, blaming the “chaos visited on our country” (as McConnell puts it in Politico) on Obama’s tyrannical flouting of American governing norms will inevitably be enough to hand them the Senate in 2014. This has to work eventually. It just has to.