Most observers think there’s no chance Mitch McConnell will lose to Tea Party primary challenger Matt Bevin. But McConnell is now taking truly withering fire from the right — as one account puts it, it’s his “bring-it-on moment.” And it offers an interesting glimpse into an amusing 2014 subplot: The ongoing efforts by GOP leaders to wrestle to the ground the monster they spent years creating.
McConnell voted to break Ted Cruz’s debt limit filibuster, helping avert a crisis that could have badly damaged the GOP for 2014. Now the Courier-Journal of Kentucky reports that this has become a major issue in the primary. Bevin is ripping McConnell as “spineless” and “a Democrat in disguise as a Republican,” while Cruz pointedly notes that whether McConnell remains Senate GOP leader “is ultimately a decision” for “the voters in Kentucky.” Note the response from the McConnell camp:
Asked about the controversy, McConnell spokesman Robert Steuer said that the Senator “has consistently said that raising the debt limit without corresponding cuts in spending is irresponsible, and that’s why he and every Senate Republican were united in the final vote against the debt ceiling hike.”
“Senator McConnell strongly believes that the president and Democrats in Congress are failing the country by refusing to fix Washington’s underlying spending problem,” Steuer added in an email. “But Sen. McConnell kept his promise to Kentuckians that he would not risk another government shutdown or default.”
In other words, Camp McConnell is defending his conservative bona fides by citing his final vote to allow default as a responsible way of controlling spending, while simultaneously citing his vote to break the GOP filibuster of the debt ceiling hike as a responsible move to prevent default from unleashing economic disaster.
Legislators regularly use procedural tricks to work around difficult political dilemmas. But this comical level of contortion is what you need to resort to when dealing with a base that has been misled and had its expectations falsely inflated for literally years. GOP leaders have worked diligently to create an alternate reality in which the Next Big Confrontation With Obama is perpetually the one that will finally produce a glorious, epic victory over out-of-control Obummer-Job-Crushing-Big-Gummit, whether it’s the health law or federal spending.
In this alternate reality, those things remain the single greatest threats to the country’s future — even though Obamacare is based on Republican ideas for patching up the safety net, and Republicans have largely won the battle over austerity, with the deficit as a share of GDP continuing to fall. In this alternate reality, anything that doesn’t produce that desired glorious, epic victory over Obama’s slow motion destruction of the country is by definition abject surrender. Indeed, Republican leaders themselves repeatedly defined raising the debt limit — which requires no concessions from either side — as unilateral “surrender” by the GOP. So McConnell, who has done more to thwart Obama than anyone on the face of the planet, is under intense fire for failing to embrace tactics that would unleash widespread destruction in service of expectations that are completely unhinged from reality.
This could have real consequences for McConnell, too. He’ll almost certainly prevail in the GOP primary, but Dems hope the battle will leave enough conservative voters so dispirited with McConnell’s insufficient anti-Obama zeal that they’ll stay home in November, leading to his defeat.
* GOP LEADERS FURIOUS WITH TED CRUZ: Related to the above: Byron York reports that Republican leaders are furious with Ted Cruz for leading them into confrontations that risk damaging the party with the middle of the country. Note this:
In the end, the gambit accomplished nothing for Senate Republicans. Some GOP lawmakers who already disliked Cruz now dislike him even more. But the episode did remind the Republican leadership, as if it needs any reminding, that there are conservatives around the country who are deeply frustrated by the GOP and want it to show some fight. To them, Cruz represents that fight. Maybe they’ve been misled. Maybe they’re living in a fantasy land. But that’s what they believe. Republican leaders have to keep them in mind as November approaches.
Exactly my point above. Reminder: if Republicans really want to prevent Cruz from continuing to damage the party, they can pass immigration reform now, and thwart his apparent desire to demagogue the issue endlessly for his own purposes in the GOP presidential primary.
* NOT ALL OBAMACARE ENROLLEES PAYING THEIR PREMIUMS: The New York Times does some good work here, calling up insurers and finding out that roughly 20 percent of those who signed up for Obamacare have not paid their premiums. That means, of course, that 80 percent have paid them.
Foes of the law have widely claimed — correctly — that enrollment numbers don’t tell the whole story, because they don’t tell us who’s paid. They will seize on these numbers as proof the law is falling short. But as always, what matters is how it develops over time, and the new findings just aren’t that significant (see the next item).
* LARRY LEVITT ON THE LATEST OBAMACARE STORY: Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation emails me this about the above Times story reporting that 20 percent of Obamacare enrollees have not paid premiums:
This puts a number on what was already known, that the actual count of people who end up getting insured by exchange plans is somewhat lower than the reported figure of how many have picked a plan. I don’t think it changes anything about how the law is working, both the things going well and the challenges ahead. There’s really no material difference whether total enrollment ends up being seven million, six million, or 5.8 million this year. A key aim next year and beyond will be to ramp it up, as was always expected.
* DEMS TALK UP DISCHARGE PETITIONS: Democrats seem to be getting a bit more serious about employing discharge petitions to try to force votes in the House on both the minimum wage hike and immigration reform. These efforts are unlikely to work, because even those House Republicans who claim to be supportive of action on those fronts simply won’t sign them.
The bigger story here is that, despite their cave on the debt limit, House Republicans continue to block votes on things that very well might garner majority support in both Houses of Congress, leaving Dems no choice but to continue trying to chip away at the blockade.
* THE LATEST FROM FLORIDA’S SPECIAL ELECTION: The Dem-aligned House Majority PAC is out with a new ad hitting David Jolly, the GOP candidate in the special election in Florida’s 13th district, for his lobbying for a client who has expressed support for privatizing Social Security. The spot is a reminder that Dems will respond to attacks on Obamacare — which Dem Alex Sink stands behind — by broadening the argument to include other entitlements where Republicans are traditionally vulnerable.
Reminder: whatever the outcome here, ignore those who claim it’s a harbinger of the political climate in next fall’s elections.
* OBAMACARE AND ‘THE DIGNITY OF WORK’: Paul Krugman pushes back hard on conservative claims about the CBO report, which Paul Ryan and others have cited as proof Obamacare disincentivizes and reduces the “dignity” of work. Krugman responds that given today’s massive income inequality, the real way to boost people’s dignity and independence is to strengthen the safety net and enhance employment flexibility:
The truth is that if you really care about the dignity and freedom of American workers, you should favor more, not fewer, entitlements, a stronger, not weaker, social safety net. And you should, in particular, support and celebrate health reform. Never mind all those claims that Obamacare is slavery; the reality is that the Affordable Care Act will empower millions of Americans, giving them exactly the kind of dignity and freedom politicians only pretend to love.
Also see health reformer Jonathan Gruber’s deep dive into what the CBO report really tells us about the policy goal of breaking the link between work and insurance: it helps level the playing field.
* AND THE READ OF THE DAY, GOP POST-POLICY EDITION: Don’t miss Michael McAuliff’s great piece on how Republicans opposed a pay-for Dems proposed to extend unemployment insurance, before turning around and supporting that pay-for in a proposal to help people retire early from the military. This again suggests the insistence on paying for UI was just about masking the GOP’s real, less politically palatable reasons for opposing it.