Democrats Should Do to McConnell What the GOP Does to Pelosi

The three leaders of the Republican Party right now (Trump, McConnell and Ryan) pose very different threats. The threat Trump poses as president is on obvious display for everyone but his most ardent supporters. His lies are blatant and his attacks are vicious, but childish. In many ways Trump would be forgettable in any public office other than the one he now holds. As the executive in charge of the entire federal bureaucracy and the leader of America’s foreign policy, we’re seeing how dangerous it is to have someone as mentally unbalanced as Trump in that role.

Ryan is the only real ideologue of the group. His philosophy is rooted in the survival of the fittest as espoused by people like Ayn Rand. While that is a challenge, it is his youthful-looking sincerity as he obfuscates and lies that poses the real threat. That worked so well that most of the media even bought into the idea that he’s some kind of policy wonk with his power point nonsense.

Mitch McConnell is no ideologue. He rose to power in the Republican ranks by raising money and defending the right to do so by any means necessary. Jordan Weismann has a pretty good run-down on the way in which McConnell poses a threat.

Over the years he has masterfully twisted the rules of Senate procedure to the GOP’s advantage by breaking Washington norms that voters fundamentally don’t think or care much about, in part because they make for dry copy and soporific television. Our national aversion to process stories helped the Kentuckian gum up President Obama’s political agenda and deny him a Supreme Court appointment. And now it may allow him to pass a health care bill by stealth.

Given how we’ve seen the Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare unfold, I think it is safe to say that McConnell poses a bigger threat to our democracy than Ryan. With the latter, his ideologically-based approach appeals to those who already agree with him. When he lies and obfuscates, it is possible to call him out. As a result, the American public was pretty energized in fighting back when the AHCA was making its way through the House.

As Weismann suggests, McConnell’s approach relies on complicity from the public in order to be successful. Neither voters nor the media are willing to engage on the minutia of congressional processes to hold him accountable. That is what Mike Lofgren was on to way back in 2011. He walked through the strategy as well as why it works with both the public and the media.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

The media are also complicit in this phenomenon. Ever since the bifurcation of electronic media into a more or less respectable “hard news” segment and a rabidly ideological talk radio and cable TV political propaganda arm, the “respectable” media have been terrified of any criticism for perceived bias.

The media is never going to tackle this threat because their only tools are to lay out the process in a technical way and readers just aren’t interested. Democrats tend to either craft ideological arguments against each position or critique the process is a technical way. Neither of those ever get the public engaged in the root of the problem.

In the wake of the special election in Georgia yesterday, there is some talk about how Karen Handel ran endless ads linking Jon Ossoff to Nancy Pelosi. As Kevin Drum pointed out so effectively, Handel wasn’t making a direct connection to the policy positions of Pelosi. What Republicans have done over the years is make the minority leader the symbol of the threat Democrats pose to conservative values.

That made me realize that McConnell poses a threat to “people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.”

My suggestion is that Democrats should start making that argument against McConnell (which, unlike the attacks against Pelosi, has the benefit of being true). Then in 2018, every Democratic candidate for Senate could make the case that a vote for their opponent is a vote for McConnell and against our values in a democracy. This is one time when I don’t mind taking a page out of the Republican playbook.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.