How Did McConnell Become the Whipping Boy?

Everyone is talking about the horrible day Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had yesterday. He had to announce that he was giving up on executing an Obamacare repeal through budget reconciliation; he learned that one of his allies, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, won’t be seeking reelection; and he watched the candidate he supported in the Alabama special election lose very badly. It’s all bad news for him and it’s hard to decide which piece is the most threatening to his political career.

I actually think it’s the dynamic that unfolded in the Alabama race that should worry McConnell the most. To fully understand this, it’s probably helpful to read Jordan Gehrke’s Medium article today. He works for a political consulting firm that was initially hired by Rep. Mo Brooks and subsequently by Roy Moore. What he discovered during his research for both candidates is that their most effective message was their opposition to McConnell’s leadership. Here’s just a small sample of Gehrke’s piece:

Despite what Mitch McConnell and Senate Leadership Fund will tell you, this was nothing less than a stunning loss for Mitch McConnell tonight. He and his team at Senate Leadership Fund invested millions on a deep Red seat that Republicans were never in danger of losing, simply so that Mitch McConnell would have another loyal vote in his pocket. They threatened people, they wasted money, and they misled President Trump into thinking this race was close.

Finally, more stunning than McConnell’s loss is the way that he lost. Roy Moore did not win despite McConnell’s opposition, he won because of McConnell’s opposition. Going all the way back to the Primary, both Roy Moore and Mo Brooks promised that if elected, they would not support McConnell for Leader under any circumstances. They won because of open defiance to the Majority Leader. This is simply unprecedented.

In today’s exit polling, we asked the question of Alabama voters, “Did Mitch McConnell’s support of Luther Strange make you more or less likely to support Strange?”

25% More Likely

55% Less Likely

In the end, Mitch McConnell’s support was a more than 2–1 net negative for Luther Strange.

Tonight’s victory for Roy Moore was not simply an isolated incident: the Alabama Senate race will now become a playbook for conservative outsiders across the country. They now know that if they put Mitch McConnell on the ballot, they can beat him.

Here’s what I find most interesting. I’ve been very critical of Mitch McConnell, both for how he behaved when Barack Obama was our president and for the legislative strategy he sold to President Trump. But, on both scores, McConnell should actually be popular with the hard right Republican base.

Briefly, during Obama’s presidency, McConnell adopted an unprecedented strategy of total opposition where he utilized every stalling tactic in the book and helped his caucus stay together in complete opposition to anything Obama wanted to do. His reward was to win back control of the Senate for the Republicans and to hold his advantage through two subsequent election cycles. It’s hard to see how he could have possibly have had more success or how he could have been more of a staunch obstructionist.

As for the legislative plan he adopted for the Trump presidency, it was based on the idea that he could use two budgets in one year to repeal Obamacare and get giant tax cuts without having to ask for a single Democratic vote. Had he refused to attempt something so partisan and with such long odds of success, he would have had to settle at the outset for a repair of the Affordable Care Act rather than an attempt to repeal. And he would have had to give the Democrats in the Senate co-authorship of any tax reform, with all the concessions that implies.

From the hard right conservative point of view, that would have been a surrender before the fight even began. McConnell didn’t shy away from the fight. He adopted a highly innovative and unprecedented strategy designed to make the fight possible.

The reason I’ve criticized him so heavily for it is because it never really had much hope of success. He didn’t level with Trump and tell him that the odds of his plan working out were extremely low. And by suggesting that he could accomplish these things in a strictly partisan way, he didn’t make clear to Trump that legislative successes would require that he significantly tone down his campaign rhetoric and spend substantial time mending fences with the Democrats. He needed to tell Trump that most of his campaign promises would not be achievable, and the best strategy was to find ways to take partial credit for advancing his goals.

If McConnell and Ryan had done these things at the outset, the right would really hate them. Obviously, the effort to repeal Obamacare with fifty votes collapsed almost immediately. The next six months were dedicated to showing they were still fighting rather than making any serious effort to succeed. This is basically a demonstration of how easy it is for the right to manipulate and control the congressional leadership, but also a demonstration of how easily they can be manipulated in return.

So, now, McConnell is loathed by the base for his failure even though he led a charge up the hill against entrenched machine guns. It’d be one thing if the base said, “I like soldiers who don’t get shot to pieces,” but they actually think he’s a coward who didn’t fight at all.

What the base should be mad about is that Republicans made a lot of promises that they never were going to be able to keep. No one was more guilty of this than Trump who suggested virtually everything could be done easily and in record time.

There are solid reasons not to like McConnell for both progressives and conservatives, but it’s crazy that he’s seen by the Republican base as too soft and too little committed to the cause.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.