The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mitch McConnell’s latest sabotage effort is a scam. He already showed us how.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the Capitol on Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is refusing to allow Democrats to take control of the Senate. In so doing, the minority leader is banking on a twisted convention of political reporting that he knows will play to his advantage.

Specifically, McConnell has calculated that the press will place the onus of achieving bipartisan cooperation on President Biden, while allowing Republicans to cast their own withholding of bipartisan cooperation as proof of Biden’s failure to achieve it.

We know this because we have already seen McConnell operate from this playbook. He has been quite open about how it works. And this fact should shift the way the entire public discussion about McConnell’s strategy proceeds.

McConnell is employing a simple but deceptive scam that has hoodwinked a lot of people for a long time. The central ruse is that McConnell piously holds up the filibuster as a tool for securing bipartisan cooperation.

In reality, however, McConnell himself uses the filibuster in precisely the opposite way: to facilitate the partisan withholding of cooperation to an extraordinary extent, for largely instrumental ends.

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McConnell is now locked in a standoff with Senate Democrats. He is demanding that they commit in advance to keeping the legislative filibuster in place as his extortion price for allowing an agreement on the Senate’s operating rules.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has rejected this demand. While it’s unlikely Democrats will end the filibuster as long as moderates such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) oppose it, they won’t commit to this up front: They want to preserve this option if McConnell obstructs everything on Biden’s agenda.

The result is that the Senate has largely ground to a halt. Committees remain in GOP control, and the Biden agenda remains to some degree in limbo, with the fate of more controversial nominees and his proposed new economic rescue package remaining uncertain.

The Post has some new reporting on McConnell’s thinking:

The calculations for McConnell, according to Republicans, are simple. Not only is preserving the filibuster a matter that Republicans can unify around, it is something that potentially divides Democrats, who are under enormous pressure to discard it to advance their governing agenda.
“Republicans very much appreciate the consistency and the rock-solid fidelity to the norms and rules that make the Senate a moderating force in policymaking,” said Scott Jennings, a former McConnell aide. “The legislative filibuster is the last rule driving bipartisanship in Washington.”

As it happens, this hasn’t yet “divided” Democrats, who appear united behind the idea that they cannot allow McConnell to bluff them into forgoing their main point of leverage over him.

But if Democrats do need fortifying in this regard, here’s a place to start. When McConnell’s spinners claim that he wants to keep the filibuster to facilitate bipartisanship and moderation, it’s knee-slappingly laughable. McConnell himself has shown us otherwise.

In an interview with journalist Joshua Green in 2011, McConnell explained exactly why he was expanding use of the filibuster and other procedural tactics against even noncontroversial aspects of President Barack Obama’s agenda. He said:

“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.”

This deserves renewed attention in the current context. McConnell’s core insight was that there would be a major downside for Republicans if even a handful of GOP senators reached compromises with a Democratic president — even if the Democratic president made meaningful concessions to them in the process.

That’s because it would bolster the notion that the Democratic president had successfully bridged disagreement with Republicans. McConnell wanted to avoid that outcome, regardless of whether the compromises reached were reasonable or salutary ones by the lights of the crossover Republicans themselves.

In McConnell’s wielding, then, the filibuster facilitated the prevention of outbreaks of bipartisanship. It isn’t just that in many cases it blocked Senate Democrats from governing despite having the majority. It also set up standoffs in which refusing to reach compromises with a Democratic president fulfilled the instrumental goal of casting him as a failed leader.

There is very little doubt that McConnell intends to do the same to Biden wherever possible. In fact, as Brian Beutler suggests, by holding Senate action hostage right now — all to leverage Democrats into unilateral disarmament in the face of future filibustering — McConnell is already doing this.

Indeed, you can see this reflected in the media coverage, which is already demonstrating the success of this strategy and the correctness of the McConnell calculation underlying it. Press accounts regularly describe the current standoff in the Senate as casting doubt solely on Biden’s ability to achieve bipartisan cooperation.

McConnell is not obliged to support a Democratic president’s agenda, of course. And to some degree, Republican opposition to Biden’s agenda will understandably reflect principled disagreement.

But we are not obliged to sugarcoat the full range of McConnell’s motives here, or to pretend that there’s any legitimacy to his saintly insistence that he only wants to keep the filibuster in order to facilitate bipartisanship. He demonstrated the contrary to us himself, in his own words.

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