Mitch McConnell understands the game all too well

MITCH MCCONNELL UNDERSTANDS THE GAME ALL TOO WELL…. We talked recently about why Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is such a good Senate Minority Leader. It’s not because he’s honest (he’s not); it’s not because he negotiates in good faith (he doesn’t); it’s not because he respects institutional norms (he doesn’t); and it’s not because he’s proven himself willing to put the nation’s interests above his own petty partisanship (he hasn’t).

No, what makes McConnell excel in his job is his understanding of the process, and his strategic understanding of shaping debates. Consider this gem from Josh Green’s lengthy profile on the Minority Leader. (via Matt Yglesias)

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off [legislation advanced by Democrats],” 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.”

McConnell said something very similar to National Journal almost a year ago: “Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do. Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing [on health care reform] had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion.”

I realize this might seem obvious, but it’s really important to understanding how McConnell and Senate Republicans operate, and it’s often overlooked. In fact, I think Republicans tend to understand this better than Democrats do.

The basic civics model tells us that if a policy agenda receives an electoral mandate, and enjoys support in public opinion polls, the minority is put in a tough spot. If they go along and allow the agenda to advance, the majority will rack up victories on popular ideas. If the minority fights to kill the agenda, those lawmakers are bucking prevailing attitudes, ignoring election results, and putting themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.

But the basic civics model is wrong, or at least, overly simplistic. The public’s reactions are shaped by officials’ reactions. The challenge for a minority party isn’t whether to defy the country’s wishes, but rather, how to convince the country that their opposition, in and of itself, necessarily makes the majority’s agenda dubious.

The way McConnell sees it, for much of the American mainstream, “bipartisan support” is akin to a seal of approval. That’s true. But by ensuring that Democratic ideas, even popular ones, didn’t receive Republican backing, McConnell wasn’t bucking public attitudes, he was changing public attitudes. Voters assume there must be something wrong with partisan ideas — after all, if they were moderate, sensible proposals, negotiated in good faith, then there’d be more Republican support for them.

As such, GOP opposition to popular ideas necessarily makes them less popular.

It’s why McConnell wouldn’t allow Republicans to compromise, emphasized party unity above all, and even rejected the GOP’s own ideas when Democrats embraced them. The goal was to defeat Democratic proposals, even ones with broad national support that were good for the country, while undermining their popularity.