We’ve had an opportunity after almost two years to take a look at what this administration has been doing,” McConnell declared one bright day in late October. He was addressing the crowd gathered in a community center in the coal-country hamlet of Beattyville, Kentucky, to hear an “Update on Washington” from their state’s leading Republican. “It’s running banks, insurance companies, car companies, nationalized the student-loan business, took over our health care, passed a financial-services bill that not a single banker in Kentucky thought was a good idea,” he continued. “They’ve got people at the FCC trying to take over the Internet. People at the National Labor Relations Board trying to get rid of the secret ballots for labor-union elections. They passed a budget that puts us on a path to double the national debt in five years and triple it in 10. This is Big Government liberalism on display.”
McConnell has been building and nurturing this narrative for the better part of two years, channeling Americans’ anxieties and frustrations with the way things are going into an antipathy toward the federal government as run by Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress. As a matter of both public opinion and electoral politics, the results are plain. In 2006, Democrats won independent voters by an 18-point margin; last November, by an identical margin, these voters swung Republican. This translated to historic Republican gains—more than 60 House seats, six Senate seats, and five governorships—that might have been even greater had discontent with Washington not wiped out some of the GOP’s own candidates during primary season. In several key states, activists championed extremely right-wing candidates for the Senate, including Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and Ken Buck in Colorado, whose losses probably cost McConnell his Senate majority—for now.
It hasn’t gotten much attention, but there is also an ideological question of whether the strategy that he has pursued serves the best interest of the conservative cause. Just before the president signed the health-care-reform law, the former Bush speechwriter David Frum lit into his party’s leadership for not negotiating harder to align the law with conservative principles. “What McConnell did was a brilliant tactical success,” Frum told me. “But our job is to be conservators of the Reagan Revolution. The new law increases the Medicare payroll tax and increases the tax on investment income, which kills job creation and investment. That could have been changed with a handshake last year. Now it will require the House, the Senate, and a Republican president. We may benefit politically in the short term, but Democrats get a new entitlement program, which is the better end of the deal.” Frum added that this is the problem inherent in any strategy of outright disengagement: “McConnell is like a conservative in a Victorian novel, who believes that change is necessarily for the worse, and therefore must be blocked. But change comes anyway. So you have to plan for it and make sure it happens on terms that you regard as acceptable.”
Beyond this lies the fundamental question of whether a party has any responsibility to address society’s problems in good faith. So far, McConnell’s legacy as Republican leader is to have taken his caucus further than anyone else toward the proposition that it doesn’t. But the public is not likely to notice that anytime soon.
American politics over the next two years will be far less preoccupied with legislation and much more focused on a great clash of social visions about the efficacy and desirability of government. For the past two years, McConnell has been winning the argument that Obama and the Democrats have essentially ceded, about the value and meaning of the policies they fought so hard to pass. Much of the electorate, and the media too, has come to accept the basic outlines of the worldview that McConnell expounded in Beattyville.
John Boehner and the Republican House will be free to pass all sorts of bills designed to bedevil the White House. But how effective that strategy is will ultimately depend on what happens to the bills in the Senate. However things play out on television, McConnell will still be the key man.
But he’ll have the constant headache of his party’s right wing. McConnell’s nemesis is no Democrat but Senator Jim DeMint, the self-aggrandizing South Carolina conservative who campaigned for many of the Tea Party candidates who disrupted GOP primaries—including in Kentucky, where Rand Paul embarrassed McConnell by soundly defeating his choice to fill an open Senate seat. Activists like DeMint and Paul are already giving McConnell fits, by focusing their ire on the practical apparatus of politics—party committees, earmarks, patronage—that McConnell prizes and that wins campaigns. And McConnell is not the sort to submit quietly to tests of his purity. When I asked him whether he would vote for the bailout if he had it to do over again, he replied, “Based on what we knew then, yes.”
On the other hand, McConnell will also have more room to maneuver. The new Senate has more Republicans, but also a large number of “in cycle” Democrats—those up for reelection in 2012—from red or reddish states like Montana, Nebraska, Florida, and West Virginia, who won’t want to be seen as the president’s handmaidens.
Someone with McConnell’s distinct talents and willingness to go to extremes ought to thrive in these circumstances. The legislative imperative has been subordinated to the larger task of shaping the public’s opinion of the opposition in advance of the presidential election. Last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned campaign-finance limits and unleashed a flood of corporate money into campaigns, will only help him. Politics as war: that’s what will occupy McConnell, and all of Washington, in 2011.
“When I came to the Senate,” Bennett told me, “Bob Dole was the leader, and he was superb. Absolutely on top of his game, on top of the institution. Nobody approached Dole. It’s a very different Senate today, very different political atmosphere. Dole would be deeply frustrated. McConnell is the right guy for this atmosphere. McConnell, in this circumstance, is approaching Dole’s capacity to dominate events. These are very different times. But he’s a very different man.”