Putting the ‘opposition’ in ‘opposition party’

PUTTING THE ‘OPPOSITION’ IN ‘OPPOSITION PARTY’…. Starting early last year, Senate Republicans had a decision to make about how they would approach their responsibilities to the nation. The GOP had just suffered another round of humiliating defeats, and found themselves with their smallest Senate minority in a generation.

The chamber’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, doesn’t much know or care about public policy, but he has a thorough understanding of how to bring the legislative process to a standstill. A decision was made early on: the GOP would take its chances by simply saying “no” to everything, regardless of merit; blocking Democratic efforts at governing; and pretending that elections should have no consequences.

Before the health care fight, before the economic stimulus package, before President Obama even took office, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, had a strategy for his party: use his extensive knowledge of Senate procedure to slow things down, take advantage of the difficulties Democrats would have in governing and deny Democrats any Republican support on big legislation.

Republicans embraced it. Democrats denounced it as rank obstructionism. Either way, it has led the two parties, as much as any other factor, to where they are right now. […]

In the process, Mr. McConnell, 68, a Kentuckian more at home plotting tactics in the cloakroom than writing legislation in a committee room or exhorting crowds on the campaign trail, has come to embody a kind of oppositional politics that critics say has left voters cynical about Washington, the Senate all but dysfunctional and the Republican Party without a positive agenda or message.

But in the short run at least, his approach has worked. For more than a year, he pleaded and cajoled to keep his caucus in line. He deployed poll data. He warned against the lure of the short-term attention to be gained by going bipartisan, and linked Republican gains in November to showing voters they could hold the line against big government.

McConnell was surprisingly candid with the NYT: “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out.” Total GOP opposition, regardless of substance, was absolutely necessary, because “it’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.” If Americans saw even a hint of broad support, they’d be more likely to approve of the legislation. And since all Democratic legislation necessarily must be killed, all Republicans necessarily had to stand together against it.

There are, however, two angles to keep in mind here. The first is that there’s nothing especially wrong with an opposition leader opposing the majority party’s agenda. Opposition parties are supposed to reject what the majority wants; it’s why they’re there. The problem arises when there’s an expectation that nothing can/should happen in Congress unless President Obama and congressional Democrats find a way to make far-right Republicans happy. I don’t care that McConnell ensures unanimous GOP opposition to everything Democrats want; I care that their opposition is characterized as some kind of Democratic failure.

The second is that there’s a structural problem in the Senate. Americans can elect a large Democratic majority, and endorse an ambitious Democratic agenda, but then nevertheless see the entire American policymaking process brought to a standstill because Mitch McConnell and his cohorts feel like it. The flaw is systemic — we expect the governing majority to deliver, and at the same time we give the failed minority the tools to prevent the majority from governing at all.

It creates a ridiculous cycle. The electorate gives Democrats power to get things done … so McConnell uses his power to stop things from getting done … which causes voters to grow frustrated by the gridlock … which leads to rewards for McConnell and his party … which leads to more gridlock.

It’s quite a racket.

Post Script: Long-time readers may recall that the Monthly described exactly how McConnell operates in a 2006 profile. Looking back, we got it just right.