How Mitch McConnell Runs the Senate

Anyone capable of tearing themselves away from the subject of Sarah Palin for a moment might be interested in reading Ezra Klein's thoughtful response to my profile of Mitch McConnell in the current issue of The Atlantic. He doesn't agree with my contention that McConnell has been the Republicans' "indispensable man" and says anyone in McConnell's spot would have accomplished the same things:

[I]f it wasn't McConnell launching the filibusters, it'd be someone else. They might be better on television or more collegial in front of the cameras, but they'd still be filing objections and wasting time and holding their members together. In part, that's because the various interest groups and grass-roots organizations that power the Republican Party do not want to see compromises on liberal agenda items. But the larger truth is that obstruction just makes sense: If you can only win the next campaign if the public considers the governing party a failure, and if it's in your power to make the governing party fail, well, you can finish the thought.
I don't agree, and I think this analysis glosses over several important things. First, Obama was extraordinarily popular when he took office, the country was very much still in crisis, and Republicans had just been reduced to a rump minority. The Tea Party was in its infancy. Getting a bunch of craven, despondent senators to pursue a strategy of obstruction wasn't nearly as easy as Klein makes it out to be. Sure, interest groups are powerful. But voters are more powerful, and they'd resoundingly rejected Republicans for the second cycle in a row. 

The second point is that holding together a minority of 41 is a difficult feat. There's no margin for error, and lots of distance between Jim DeMint and Olympia Snowe. Liberals often imagine that Republicans operate in lockstep like that army from "I, Robot." But in many cases Snowe and others were sympathetic to White House policy, wanted to pass legislation, felt pressure to do so from back home, but were ultimately persuaded to abstain. People on Capitol Hill sometimes jokingly wonder what power McConnell holds over Snowe, Collins, etc. The answer, or part of it, is that he consistently appealed to them on mundane issues of process--to stick with him when, for example, Harry Reid would "fill the tree" and disallowed Republican amendments--thereby short-circuiting the possibility of any deal before policy issues ever came up. There's a reason why McConnell is universally regarded as a more effective leader than, say, Bill Frist was. Not everyone can do that.

Klein doesn't take issue with the other thing I think McConnell excels at, which is framing public affairs in a way that is maximally advantageous to his party and certainly influenced the last election. Whether you admire or deplore McConnell for all this, I'd argue that he adds up to a pretty compelling figure, and one who--because he doesn't make eight-minute Facebook videos--tends to glide beneath most people's radar.

Anyway, you can read the piece and Klein's response and decide for yourself. And while you're at it, check out these responses from Jon Chait, Matt Yglesias, and Ed Morrissey, all of which are well worth reading...and none of which invokes blood libel!