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Opinion Why Mitch McConnell wants to raise your hopes and then dash them

(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is happy to be the bad guy. If you were counting on Congress raising the amount of the stimulus checks people will be getting from the latest pandemic relief package from $600 to $2,000, the Senate majority leader has no problem being the one to crush your hopes. And he’s doing it in a multiphase strategy that involves raising expectations and then dashing them. If done with the proper timing, Republicans can win political benefits on both ends.

The fact that those checks almost certainly won’t materialize is a testament to McConnell’s power and his willingness to use it ruthlessly. If you just looked at the broadest political calculation, you’d think those checks would be on their way to people within days. The idea is incredibly popular with the public — who doesn’t like free money? The president wants them. The House passed a bill to provide them by an overwhelming majority. A majority of the Senate wants them, too, including probably all the Democrats and a rising number of Republicans:

New proponents of the $2,000 checks include Georgia’s two embattled Republican senators — David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — who find themselves in tough reelection battles that will decide the fate of the chamber next week. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) also lent support Tuesday, declaring that “people are hurting and we need to get them more aid.” They joined Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who have also supported the idea of $2,000 stimulus checks.

McConnell is done providing help to the U.S. economy, however, now that President-elect Joe Biden will be taking office in just three weeks.

But it’s a little too early to kill the idea just yet, so McConnell has put together a bill raising the stimulus to $2,000 per person but joining it to two of President Trump’s priorities — a commission to investigate voter fraud and a repeal of Section 230, the latter an obvious poison pill that would ensure his bill’s defeat.

In case you haven’t followed that particular debate, some conservatives, including the president, have seized on Section 230 in their displeasure at the fact that Twitter sometimes puts a stern label on Trump’s most egregious lies. The problem is that a sudden repeal of the law could drive every social media company out of business, because it would make it possible for people to hold Facebook or Twitter legally liable for anything anyone said on their platforms.

There are certainly reforms Congress could pass to address the sewer of misinformation, conspiracy theories and incitement that those platforms have become (particularly Facebook). But tossing a repeal of Section 230 into a stimulus bill without any kind of planning or deliberation is not the way to do it, which McConnell knows perfectly well.

Instead, the point for him is to just run out the clock. The 116th Congress comes to an end on Jan. 3. The Georgia runoff elections happen two days later.

McConnell has two competing needs at the moment. First, he has to do what he can to help Loeffler and Perdue in order to maintain the Republican hold on the Senate (if they both lose, Democrats take control). The stimulus had already become a major issue in the Georgia campaign, and after being hammered by their Democratic opponents over it, Perdue and Loeffler arrived at the position that just about whatever stimulus anyone suggests is great with them, whether it’s $600 or $2,000. They’re now posing as the guarantors of government succor, who in their boundless beneficence will rain money down on every Georgian.

But at the same time, McConnell doesn’t actually want the $2,000 stimulus checks to become a reality. It’s not because he cares about increasing the deficit (he doesn’t). Nor is it because he thinks the aid is poorly targeted — even though you can make a good case that it is, and we would do better to send money to the people who need it most right now rather than to everyone.

No, the reason McConnell opposes the $2,000 is that any further stimulus would accelerate the economic recovery. How much it would do so is hard to predict with precision, but it would certainly have some effect, and anything that helps the economy is bad for the Republican project of constraining, undermining and sabotaging Biden’s presidency.

So all McConnell needs is to drag this out for a few more days. If he can give Loeffler and Perdue the time to loudly proclaim their support for the $2,000 checks, it might not matter for their race whether the bill dies in the end. The best possible outcome is for them to win in part because they promised to bring more stimulus, but then for no more stimulus to arrive.

That’s because over the next two years, Republicans would very much like Americans to think that government has failed them. The more dissatisfaction and displeasure there is, the more likely it becomes that McConnell and his party can sweep the 2022 midterms, make Biden’s life hell and set the GOP up to retake total control of government in 2024 — even if it was largely their fault.

Back in 2010, McConnell famously said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He also desperately wanted Republicans to take control of Congress, which eventually they did. Today, he has the same goals. And his work has already begun.

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