Will McConnell Abandon the Tool He Used So Successfully?

Obstructionism brought the Republicans to power, but will it be their downfall?

Yesterday I posted two tweets that I think need more discussion. In case you missed them, here they are again.

As much as it pains me to say so, we can chalk up a huge win for Mitch McConnell in implementing the strategy that those tweets describe. After getting trounced in the 2008 election, he did two things in the Senate:

  1. Held his Republican troops together to oppose anything the Democrats tried to accomplish in order to – as he admitted himself – rob them of claiming any bipartisan support, and
  2. Utilized the filibuster to an unprecedented level. The normalization of the idea that any legislation required 60 votes is a testament to his success.

As Tannenbaum said, that kind of obstruction convinced a lot of people that government is broken – paving the way for Trump to lob his molotov cocktails to blow the whole thing up.

Now that Republicans control both the White House and the Senate (in addition to the House) it will be interesting to see if Majority Leader McConnell is prepared to give up the very tool he used so successfully. Carl Hulse says that will be a hard choice. But one of his arguments is, frankly, laughable.

Mr. McConnell is what is known on Capitol Hill as an institutionalist, a strong believer in the traditions and practices of the Senate.

Excuse me, but where was this “institutionalist” when the idea emerged to refuse even a hearing on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee – something that had never been done before? Beyond that, it seems odd to use that term when talking about the Majority Leader who took the use of the filibuster to such unprecedented levels.

This argument is just a bit more plausible:

Mr. McConnell has said repeatedly that it is crucial to American democracy to respect the special rights of the minority party in the Senate, and that it would be a mistake to limit the filibuster, since the decision could backfire if his party fell out of power.

“I don’t think we should act as if we’re going to be in the majority forever,” he said.

That’s where the question gets more interesting. Will McConnell give up the one tool that provided his party with the strategy to be so successful in obstructing President Obama? That would require a commitment to the long-term – something we’ve not witnessed much from Republicans in this era.

Rather than an institutionalist, I have always seen McConnell as someone who is pretty skilled at playing the power game. He’s never been as interested in particular policies (other than support for the coal industry) as he is in winning the game. In other words, what he does with the filibuster will be based on what works best to give Republicans in the Senate more power.

Ultimately there is an irony at work here. If the filibuster is eliminated, neither McConnell nor his successors will ever be able to repeat the strategy he used so successfully against Obama. What we are about to witness from Congress is going to be ugly. I’ll take what little comfort I can, wherever I can find it.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.