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Opinion Mitch McConnell’s ability to cripple Biden’s presidency depends on one thing

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Jon Ossoff, who hopes to unseat GOP Sen. David Perdue in one of two Georgia runoffs, is running on a straightforward message. It has the virtue of being not just largely true, but also one we’ve already learned to be true from bitter experience.

If Republicans win one or both runoffs, Ossoff says, continued GOP control of the Senate will mean relentless obstruction of incoming President Joe Biden’s agenda. That means a much more grueling economic recovery, a less-coordinated response to the coronavirus’ latest rampage and a death knell for popular policies such as expanded health care and infrastructure investments.

In short, unless Democrats win both runoffs — giving them control — it will mean far more economic misery, far more illness and death, and badly diminished prospects for long-term national revival.

We know that if he remains majority leader, Mitch McConnell will work to cripple the Biden presidency by saddling him with the terrible politics of a miserable recovery. We saw him do this for years, mostly as minority leader, during the last Democratic presidency.

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But will this matter to the outcomes in Georgia?

“If McConnell controls the Senate, he’s going to block the kind of relief package that we need,” Ossoff told me. “And that means not just short-term, direct economic relief, but also the kind of infrastructure-jobs-clean energy program necessary to support long-term recovery.”

“This paralysis of our government in the midst of a crisis is untenable,” Ossoff added. “People are suffering, and they want government to work.”

Post Senior Producer Kate Woodsome talks to Americans who voted for Trump, or simply don't feel like denouncing him, about why they feel wrongly scorned. (Video: The Washington Post)

A big rescue package is popular

Ossoff says his travels throughout Georgia have persuaded him that voters widely want an ambitious rescue package.

“What I’m hearing from folks across the political spectrum is the urgent necessity of immediate economic relief,” Ossoff told me.

Indeed, pre-election polling did show very broad support for a multitrillion-dollar stimulus package, aid to state governments and direct financial support to individuals.

Yet if this is what voters want, how do you make them appreciate that a vote for Perdue — or a failure to turn out and vote Democratic — is a vote for a GOP-controlled Senate that will all but kill such possibilities?

“We have to make sure that voters understand the stakes,” Ossoff told me.

In this case, two races will largely decide whether we get all those things, or whether we do not get them.

We know what McConnell will do

By blocking a big stimulus, McConnell can do a lot of damage. The coronavirus’ spikes everywhere are requiring new health measures and a pullback from economic activity. Only this time, previously passed federal aid programs are drying up.

Last spring, Republicans backed a large aid package, when McConnell plainly calculated it would boost GOP electoral prospects. This fall, when he appeared to think another big stimulus couldn’t save President Trump, and his members balked at more spending, he opposed a second round.

Now McConnell is still insisting on a much smaller aid package, even as Biden’s economic advisers believe lack of ambitious action now could result in a serious recession.

McConnell is surely chortling with glee about what all this misery means for the Biden presidency. And with Republicans gearing up to pretend deficits matter again after helping explode them with a massive tax cut for the rich, they hope to starve the Biden agenda with austerity in a broader sense.

But how can Democrats make this matter in two races that will largely settle whether this happens or not?

A tough challenge

Until 2020, Democrats were largely stuck at around 45 percent of the Georgia vote. But the incredibly vote-rich and diverse suburbs around Atlanta grew more blue this cycle, probably due in part to Trump.

That lifted Biden to 49.5 percent, but Ossoff fell just short at 48 percent. As a FiveThirtyEight analysis showed, in many of those counties, Ossoff ran a couple of points behind Biden, meaning the challenge for Ossoff is getting a bit higher, but without Trump on the ballot.

Many analysts believe Trump juiced up base turnout, lifting down-ballot Republicans who added to that a sliver of swing voters who couldn’t stomach Trump but liked their GOP congressman or senator. Many voters like the idea of divided government, probably out of a belief that the push and tug between parties can produce quality compromises.

But how do you get that sliver of voters to grasp the true depths of GOP bad faith — the explicit GOP strategic devotion to scuttling that very possibility?

When I asked Ossoff about this, he allowed that much will turn on the ability of Democrats to drive this home. “What we need to communicate is the truth," he told me.

But he noted that ultimately, the challenge will be in mobilizing Democratic base turnout again (which might also prove important if Trump’s absence demobilizes Republicans), and said this also requires demonstrating what GOP obstruction really entails.

Another Trump effect?

While these races will be tough, Trump himself may be making that mobilization somewhat easier. Republicans, Perdue included, have decided going all in with Trump’s lies about the election being stolen from him will juice GOP turnout.

“Black turnout in Georgia is vital,” Ossoff told me, adding that Trump and Perdue “are having a public tantrum because they felt entitled to victory," and expected to be saved by “the apparatus of voter suppression.” That didn’t happen.

“Their efforts to invalidate that result are a direct attack on Black voters, whose extraordinary turnout powered Biden’s victory in Georgia,” Ossoff continued.

A Republican victory in Georgia, then, would also validate the GOP’s use of declaring the election’s outcome illegitimate as a successful political tactic. That’s yet another way the stakes of these runoffs are so high — along with whether we get an ambitious governmental response to the profound crises we face.

Read more:

Fred Hiatt: Marco Rubio is already suiting up for the politics of destruction

James Downie: The GOP: A party that cannot change

Paul Waldman: The fight in Georgia is a nearly perfect microcosm of American politics in 2020

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans’ last gasp in Georgia

Katrina vanden Heuvel: How Georgia went blue

Paul Waldman: What’s at stake in Georgia? Nothing less than democracy itself.