What was  Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) doing last week when he announced…proudly…that he would not allow an increase in the debt ceiling without significant cuts in Medicare?

At first blush this may not seem like that big of a deal given the continuing demands from the GOP leadership in the House for substantial spending cuts before it will allow a debt ceiling increase.  But it is.  This is not a call for reductions in general; it’s insisting on cuts in an exceedingly popular specific program.  And it’s not just any specific program: It’s Medicare, the currently most politically sensitive program of all and the one that, because of the Republican plan to make substantial reductions, cost the GOP a House seat in upstate New York just barely a week ago.

Possible conclusions:

1.  McConnell likely can’t stay as minority leader without unequivocal support from the GOP’s tea party-like base and, in the wake of the widespread criticism of Newt Gingrich for abandoning the House GOP Medicare reduction plan (Newt was against it before he was for it), he used this statement and extreme position to shore up his own bona fides with that wing of the party.

2.  McConnell wants to be majority leader if the GOP takes over the Senate and needs the base to do that.

3.  McConnell is from the state that also elected Rand Paul to the Senate and he runs the chance of looking like a liberal Democrat in comparison to his junior senator if he doesn’t make statements like this.

But the one that’s most intriguing is that McConnell has decided that the GOP winning the White House in 2012 isn’t as important to him as the GOP getting the majority in the Senate and that requires continually energizing the base rather than trying to win over independents and Democrats.

If Obama wins and the GOP takes over the Senate, (Roger Ailes aside) McConnell will be the most important and powerful Republican in the United States.   That won’t be true if there’s a Republican president, of course.  But if all of the best known GOP candidates lose the Republican nomination in 2012 and the 2012 nominee then loses in the general election, the next tranche of potential Republican presidential candidates will be at least two years away.  In the meantime, McConnell will be the one negotiating with the White House and stopping its initiatives.

The McConnell statement makes a great deal of sense in this context.  Openly attacking Medicare as he did strengthens his credentials with the base even if it weakens them with everyone else.  But that’s okay because it’s the base that’s needed to elect Republicans to the Senate next year and that would strengthen McConnell even if it makes life harder…or impossible…for the GOP presidential candidate.

If this is true, the implications for what can and will happen between now and November 2012 will be clear and extreme: No compromises on any issues, especially those having to do with taxes, spending, the deficit, and national debt; further criticism of the Federal Reserve, especially if it tries to do something that improves the economy in the short-term; and little to no progress on anything that would look like a win for the White House.

[Cross-posted at Capital Gains and Games]