The Only Way to Handle McConnell Is to Defeat Him at the Ballot Box

One of the questions the debate moderators asked on Wednesday night was something that, on the one hand, hangs over every issue that was discussed, and on the other hand, is impossible to answer. They wanted to know, “Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell if you don’t beat him in the Senate?” Here is Elizabeth Warren’s response.

I would take issue with a couple of things she said. When Warren referred to a Congress that has ignored the will of the people for too long, she reinforces the media’s “both sides do it” argument that has completely distorted our political reality, failing to hold people like McConnell responsible for the dysfunction. But her primary response reiterated the crux of Warren’s approach to everything—that we have to fight. She ended by saying that “we have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

Underneath that argument is the assumption that, with enough pressure from outside and inside, McConnell will change his ways. It represents a fundamental misunderstanding of our current situation. The Senate majority leader has been playing his hand for over a decade now. It is beyond time for all of us to be clear about what he’s up to. Mike Lofgren explained it well back in 2011.

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 only thing I’d add is that McConnell’s success with this strategy isn’t solely dependent on millions of low information voters. We now have a significant portion of the population that is fed a steady diet of lies, conspiracy theories, and propaganda by a whole network of right wing media outlets. Those are the people McConnell is playing to, which is why he doesn’t care that the rest of us think he is a corrupt, lying hypocrite.

The “Grim Reaper,” as he likes to call himself, has been willing to ignore the will of the people on a whole host of issues that have overwhelming support amongst voters ever since the days when he tried to obstruct the Democrats from doing anything to help stop our descent toward a second Great Depression in 2009. McConnell isn’t stupid. He knows that voters have shown strong support for most of the policy proposals put forward by Democrats. He simply doesn’t care.

The facts are that McConnell’s strategy has been overwhelmingly effective. Neither he nor any of his colleagues has paid a price for literally breaking the Senate. Unless and until that happens, there is no hope that they will ever change course.

The correct way to answer the question posed by the moderators on Wednesday night is to reject the premise, explain how McConnell and his Republican colleagues have broken the Senate, and let the viewing public know that the only way to fix it is to beat them at the ballot box.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.