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Opinion Mitch McConnell’s plan is working

On Jan. 19, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that African American voter turnout was “just as high” as for "Americans." (Video: C-Span)
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At the one-year mark in President Biden’s first term, there’s no sugarcoating it: A barrage of new polls are absolutely brutal for him. Surveys from NBC News and the Associated Press both put Biden’s approval at 43 percent, and CBS News puts it at 44 percent, in large drops since last summer.

In short: Everything is going pretty much as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has planned. We know this because the Kentucky Republican told us exactly how he planned it. In fact, he laid out the playbook more than a decade ago, and it has changed little since then.

At dark moments such as these, after Biden’s voting rights agenda fell to a Republican filibuster on Wednesday night, it’s worth revisiting a largely-forgotten, 11-year-old quote from McConnell. It captures a crucial insight about U.S. politics that helps illuminate the struggles Democrats are facing, and why they feel so frustrating and intractable.

At the time, McConnell was similarly wielding his role as minority leader to obstruct another Democratic president, by denying any and all GOP support for proposals like the 2010 Affordable Care Act. McConnell explained his thinking to journalist Joshua Green:

“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.”

The counterintuitive thought here runs as follows: Yes, Americans want the parties to cooperate in a bipartisan fashion. Yes, when the parties disagree, Americans might agree with one side more than the other. But in McConnell’s theory, those things don’t matter.

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Instead, when government is seen as dysfunctional amid partisan fighting, the president and his party are blamed, because they run the place. When Republicans uniformly oppose the president’s policies, voters fault him for failing to secure bipartisan cooperation. That’s why McConnell wants to deny him “broad agreement.”

With that in mind, we can be sure that McConnell chortled with glee as he watched Biden’s Wednesday news conference, where reporters hammered Biden for failing to achieve “unity” with Republicans. In those lines of questioning, they were effectively erased as a factor in that failure.

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‘What are Republicans for?'

Every GOP senator voted to block the Democratic proposals — which would protect voting rights and restore federal preclearance of voting changes — from moving forward. Similarly, every congressional Republican opposes Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which seeks to tackle generational problems facing our country, from profound economic inequality to looming climate catastrophe.

In this case, of course, two centrist Democratic senators also stand in the way: They’re withholding support for BBB and won’t nix the filibuster to protect democracy. But uniform GOP opposition on both fronts is a major factor, and should be something Democrats can exploit politically.

Biden certainly thinks McConnell’s strategy leaves Republicans vulnerable. At his presser, he declared that in the midterms, Democrats will stress what they’ve passed, such as the rescue package (which has driven a surprisingly robust recovery) and the infrastructure bill (where bipartisanship was achieved), and vowed to get some form of BBB done.

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President Biden held a news conference on Jan. 19 as his administration approaches one year in office. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

This, Biden said, will be relentlessly contrasted with lockstep GOP opposition. He vowed that Democrats will relentlessly ask: “What are Republicans for?”

A polling double-whammy

But those new polls illustrate why McConnell’s strategy nonetheless might work. The NBC poll shows double-digit slippage for Biden since last spring among independents and core Democratic groups such as Black people and Latinos, and abysmal approval numbers on the economy and covid-19. The CBS poll shows lackluster support among liberals and finds Biden underwater with young voters.

So there may be a double-whammy here. Independents may be alienated by Biden’s inability to achieve more bipartisanship (GOP obstruction works). Meanwhile, core Democratic voters may be demoralized by the failure to accomplish big achievements (GOP obstruction isn’t enough to get them to redirect blame; they hear more about Democratic infighting).

“The Democratic base wants things to get done on a whole host of important issues,” Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster, told me.

Gourevitch noted that both Democrats and independents alike might be alienated by perceptions of dysfunction. “Voters don’t pay deep attention to how things don’t get done,” he said. “They just see that things don’t get done.”

Gourevitch added that GOP obstruction might not be weighing as heavily as one might hope. “It’s not like Republicans are popular,” he said, but it’s plausible that “the voters will pay attention to who’s in charge, as they have done historically in many elections.”

None of this is to absolve Biden of blame. His broken promises on immigration may be one reason for slipping base support. He took his eye off the ball on coronavirus testing and got caught off guard by the latest surge, which surely is hurting across the board. And despite the economic rebound, inflation and supply chain issues are tainting that picture.

It may ultimately prove possible to make Republicans pay a price for obstruction. If Biden can get a smaller BBB passed and the economy keeps recovering, casting Republicans as obstacles to ongoing progress might have potency. And as the new White House focus on free tests and masks shows, it now knows defeating covid is paramount for recovery — including political recovery.

But still: The next time McConnell unleashes one of those trademark chortles, remember that 11-year-old quote. It helps explain why he’s laughing in your faces.

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