Why McConnell doesn’t bother with pretense

WHY MCCONNELL DOESN’T BOTHER WITH PRETENSE…. There’s something to be said for candor. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week that he has every intention of taking the unprecedented obstructionism of recent years and making it even worse next year.

This is the latest in a streak, of sorts. The comments come on the heels of McConnell admitting that destroying the Obama presidency is his top priority; he’ll only consider negotiating with the White House if they agree to give him everything he wants; and he demands unanimous GOP opposition to everything as a way of making ideas unpopular.

While none of this is surprising anymore, there is a certain oddity to the candor — political leaders rarely ever talk this way. Traditionally, Americans have come to expect those in leadership positions to at least pay lip-service to finding common ground, working constructively with those they disagree with; being open-minded and respectful of rivals’ ideas; etc.

McConnell just doesn’t bother with any of this. Ezra Klein had a good item the other day exploring various explanations as to why the senator just doesn’t seem to give a damn.

1) The Mr. Smith flicks off Washington theory: McConnell himself is a hardcore partisan who truly dislikes Obama. The guy says this stuff because he’s an uncommonly honest politician.

2) Jon Chait’s theory: McConnell is worried about the tea parties, both in Kentucky, where they knocked off his favored candidate in a primary, and nationally. This is how he stays ahead of them.

3) The DeMint theory: The common take on McConnell on the Hill is that he’s terrified of Jim DeMint’s growing influence among Republican legislators. McConnell can’t out-conservative DeMint — in part because he’s simply not conservative in the way DeMint is, and in part because, as leader, he’ll have to sign onto compromises that DeMint will never support — so he’s trying to out-partisan him, with the central insight being that most conservatives are bigger partisans than they are ideologues.

4) The negotiator’s theory: McConnell is a creature of the Senate. He makes deals. The tax deal, for instance, was McConnell’s. So he repeats these comments for two reasons: First, to show the White House that he’s not a pushover, and is not impressed by them and should not be taken lightly. And second, to underscore his partisan credibility so that when he does cut deals with the White House, he has the conservative capital necessary to sell them as something other than capitulations to Obama.

5) He’s communicating with his members and allies: Senate Republicans will remain in the minority next year, and so McConnell’s job in 2011 will be the same as his job in 2010: Keep everyone together on procedural votes so Democrats can’t move their agenda forward. McConnell is giving these quotes to Beltway publications like the National Journal and Politico, which are best understood as message boards where the professional political class talks to itself. By making his intentions public in these forums, McConnell is letting his members — not to mention allied lobbyists, advocacy groups, etc — know how seriously he’s going to take party loyalty over the next two years.

I think there’s quite a bit of truth to all of these, but I’d mention a sixth: McConnell knows he can get away with obstinacy because he always has.

When McConnell first started being candid about his reflexive, mindless, knee-jerk partisanship, he faced almost no pushback. If there’d been a major controversy, and the media had helped push him into a corner, McConnell would likely be more cautious about speaking his mind.

But that’s not what’s happened at all. McConnell is as rigid as he wants to be in large part because he pays no price for sentiments that should be scandalous but aren’t — the media doesn’t care, the public doesn’t seem surprised, Dems can’t make hay of it, and his caucus rewards him.

In other words, McConnell does this because he can, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change.