Yes the incoming Senate Majority Leader is a successful politician, but he’s hardly some political superman.
A popular thread in liberal circles online is that incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is some sort of political genius. Matt Yglesias has referred to him as “the greatest strategist in contemporary politics” and Steve Bennen has also weighed in as well.
Their argument goes like this: McConnell convinced his party to respond Obama’s election by automatically opposing everything he proposed and in addition filibustered everything making the Senate effectively a supermajority institution where you need 60 votes to do anything. Since Americans don’t pay much attention to politics and tend to blame the president for what’s happening in Washington the resulting gridlock from Operation McConnell resulted in Obama getting the blame for Republican intransigence. Hence Obama’s underwater approval ratings and big GOP victories in 2010 and 2014.
It’s an interesting take, but as Jonathan Bernstein pointed out a few days ago it doesn’t hold up very well:
The electoral benefits of rejectionism remain unproven. Just because Republicans won big in the midterms after McConnell and his allies in Congress used the rejectionist strategy doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship.
In fact historically the midterm results in 2010 and 2014 are what we would expect regardless of the level of cooperation:
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans went from 48 Senate seats (a majority) to only 34 over a similar span, at what is considered a low point of partisanship in congressional history. Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats were clobbered in 1966 and 1968 after plenty of congressional Republican support for civil rights, Medicare and the war in Vietnam.
Ronald Reagan had both widely acknowledged victories on policy and a relatively fair amount of bipartisanship in his presidency, yet his Republicans were reduced from 53 to 45 senators from 1981 to 1987. During President George W. Bush’s presidency, especially his first term, Democrats probably came as close to cooperation as is possible in the current era, and Republicans still lost plenty of seats during his presidency.
Indeed since by McConnell’s own admission the whole point of this strategy was to make Obama a one term president, which means by his own criteria the scorched earth opposition failed.
Simply put the Democrats did poorly in 2010 and 2014 because of structural factors not some grand political stratagem. A slow recovery, older and whiter electorate, and the fact that the party in the White House tends to do badly in midterms can explain the vast majority of what happened.
And of course the McConnell’s strategy has not been without its own costs.
It’s tempting in politics, like in touch football, to think the other side has some much better plan than you do. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Especially when there’s no evidence that it is so.
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Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP