Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who was charged with delivering his party a Senate majority this year, gazed upon his work this cycle and saw evidence of his genius. True, Republicans lost many winnable races and will not take control of the chamber. They may lose in Georgia. Scott’s release of an “11 Point Plan to Rescue America” was a public relations disaster that sent Republicans fleeing. Democrats used it as a weapon all the way to Election Day.
And yet, despite all this, Scott decided he was the man to lead Senate Republicans to future glory.
That puzzling notion led Scott, who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee this cycle, to mount a challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Scott announced his leadership bid at a contentious meeting of his colleagues Tuesday. “It was like Festivus from ‘Seinfeld,’” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. “The airing of grievances.”
In the end, Scott lost the vote 37-10.
This sorry saga is about something more than Scott’s professional failures. At bottom, Scott’s challenge was driven by a persistent belief among a certain kind of conservatives that the public yearns for old-fashioned supply-side economics and will reward Republicans if they just advocate it more forthrightly.
McConnell disagrees, surely not because he is any less enamored with tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts for the rabble, but because he appreciates the political limits of his party’s appeal. While he is sometimes described as a man with no beliefs, only a desire for power, McConnell is better understood as a man with no illusions.
The same cannot be said of Scott, though in his defense he’s hardly alone. If Democrats are plagued by the often unfounded fear that the public hates everything they stand for, many Republicans have the opposite problem, an overconfident belief that if the public only understood their plan to eviscerate our system of social supports, victory for the GOP would inevitably follow.
That was the idea behind Scott’s spectacularly ill-conceived 11-point plan. It advocated increasing taxes on lower-income Americans and, perhaps most remarkably, sunsetting all federal legislation after five years. (“If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again,” Scott wrote.)
Anyone who has been around politics for more than a day and a half knew exactly how Democrats would respond: By shouting, as loudly and often as possible, that Republicans want to force Congress to reauthorize Social Security and Medicare every five years or see the beloved programs die.
That foreseeable attack was why McConnell rejected Scott’s plan at the time. He understands that there’s little more foolish than drawing attention to the least popular parts of the conservative agenda.
Selling that agenda to the public has always required care and skill. The party of the wealthy and corporations can’t shine too bright a light on its most trickle-down ideas. In this, Scott should have learned the lesson of Paul D. Ryan’s career.
The Wisconsinite spent years fashioning and promoting his various budgets and plans, earning him glowing news coverage as the GOP’s most earnest policy wonk but getting nowhere when it came to turning those plans into law. That’s because other Republicans knew that Ryan’s agenda — brutal cuts to popular social programs, especially Medicare and Medicaid — was utterly toxic to voters. With each new iteration of Ryan’s plan, Democrats would pounce, and Republicans would say, “Thanks, Paul — maybe we’ll get to that later.”
Donald Trump grasped the politics immediately. During the 2016 primaries, he vowed not to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, and while it was a promise he didn’t exactly work hard to keep, he understood how important it was to tell voters he’d protect their entitlements from his own party.
It isn’t hard to slide a tax cut for the upper crust through Congress when Republicans have control, and even if the bill is hugely unpopular, the public will largely forget about it before long. But threatening Social Security and Medicare is a whole other matter. Some Republicans may not like those programs, but they know they’ll never get rid of them.
The midterm elections showed another version of this problem. Republicans wanted the elections to be about inflation and crime, which they could blame on President Biden and ride to victory. Instead, they, rather than Biden, became the issue: the success of their effort to eliminate abortion rights, their attack on democracy and their unpopular leader. And they lost.
The only way it could have been worse is if everyone had kept talking about Scott’s plan to wipe out every federal law every five years. But perhaps, like a certain tech baron currently destroying a company he overpaid for, Scott — who is the wealthiest member of Congress — is a little too convinced of his own brilliance.
Most of his colleagues have been around long enough to know where that leads. So they’ll stick with McConnell, whose most important conviction is that ruthlessness wins.
And if that requires once again setting aside the dream of an eviscerated safety net, so be it.