Is Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a changed man? Now that he has finally achieved his longtime ambition of becoming Senate majority leader, could the politician who got there through a strategy of unremitting opposition to anything and everything President Obama wanted to do now become an apostle of compromise? That’s the impression you’d get if you read this article in today’s New York Times based on interviews with McConnell. Before you scoff, let’s consider that it might actually be true, at least to a degree. McConnell is nothing if not adaptable, and he may be charting a kind of middle path for Republicans for the next two years — not exactly one of joining with Obama in a new spirit of cooperation, but with the fist-shaking opposition of the past six years considerably toned down.
I’ll explain why this might make sense in a moment, but here’s what McConnell is saying:
“One of my challenges is to try to convince some of my members that passing an appropriations bill is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Mr. McConnell said during an interview in which he looked ahead to assuming command of the Senate on Jan. 6. Mr. McConnell, who was instrumental in holding Republicans together against President Obama and Democratic initiatives, acknowledges that changing the mind-set of opposition he helped instill in his colleagues will be crucial to advancing legislation that will attract Democratic support and force Mr. Obama into difficult choices over whether to sign measures pushed by his adversaries. And that is why his focus will be lawmakers he thinks he can meld into a governing coalition.
“There are two kinds of people in politics,” Mr. McConnell said after the recent blowup when Mr. Cruz, the fiery Texan, and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, another firebrand, forced the Senate into a year-end session that handed Democrats more time to confirm dozens of presidential nominees on their way out the door. “Those who want to make a point and those who want to make a difference.
“All of us from time to time make a point,” Mr. McConnell said. “But it is time now to make a difference.”
That might sound like empty rhetoric, but I think it actually reflects McConnell’s assessment of the surest way to achieve his most immediate goal, which is to maximize the chances that a Republican wins the White House in 2016.
As you probably remember, McConnell famously said in 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” While this is often presented as a as a momentary revelation of McConnell’s deep cynicism, at the time it was completely reasonable (if rather more candid than people are used to). Of course that was Republicans’ most important goal — it’s awfully hard to enact your policy agenda when the other party controls the White House. They had another goal, winning control of Congress. McConnell and other party leaders decided upon Obama’s inauguration that the way to achieve those goals was to obstruct him as much as possible, and they were right. While they didn’t stop him from being reelected, they took back both houses over two midterm elections and generally made Obama’s life miserable.
But now they have a different goal, which demands a different strategy. They control Congress, but they can’t actually pass anything on their wish list because Obama holds the veto pen. So they can pursue one of three courses. The first is to continue with what they did over the past six years: Obstruct everything, and create periodic crises that threaten to shut down the government or default on the nation’s debt. Up until 2014, there was a cynical but essentially correct logic to that course. As McConnell well knew, it’s the president who gets blamed for Washington dysfunction, whether he’s responsible or not. Even though Republicans created the conditions that led to widespread disgust with Congress, they managed to benefit from it.
A continuation on that course, however, might not make the election of a Republican president in 2016 any more likely. It would probably do the opposite, as the GOP nominee will be tarred with the extremism and irresponsibility of a Republican Congress. That leaves two options.
The second path would be enthusiastic cooperation with Obama, working hard to pass meaningful legislation to solve complex problems. But that’s not particularly appealing to Republicans either. The more bills they pass, the more substantive compromises they’ll have to make. Not only would that anger both their base voters and their conservative members, it also wouldn’t serve their policy goals. Why negotiate a far-reaching tax reform now with a Democratic president, when if you waited two years you might have the chance to do it with a Republican president, and instead of getting half of what you want, get it all?
That leaves the third path, which is what McConnell seems to be hinting at. It involves some of the kinds of futile, angry gestures of the past six years — votes to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act or Obama’s executive actions on immigration — which will make his caucus feel better but would be vetoed. And it includes just enough dealmaking to make Congress look reasonable and keep the government funded. That’s why McConnell mentioned appropriations bills; he’s willing to get a few gifts for Republicans on those (as they got on the recent budget bill), and in return make sure there are no more shutdowns.
The result, he surely hopes, is a Congress in which the tea partyers are satisfied enough, the confrontations that make Republicans look bad are avoided, and everything is geared toward one goal: helping (or more accurately, not hurting) the chances that the GOP nominee will win the White House in 2016. There are other variables at play — the House is less easily managed than the Senate, and Obama will find ways to drive Republicans crazy — but this middle path is the most likely to lead to success.
So no, Mitch McConnell is not a changed man. He’s still a shrewd politician who understands what his goal is and what course of action maximizes the odds that it will be achieved. But circumstances have changed, so he will plot a new course.