National Journal

Robert Costa of National Review, who won praise for his coverage of the fiscal showdown these past few weeks, has a new interview out with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In it McConnell offered up an assessment of where Republicans went wrong in the shutdown standoff and seemed to suggest he was against the GOP's defunding efforts all along.

"I can tell you when I knew that we'd end up here — July," McConnell told Costa in the interview published Thursday. "We had extensive discussions in July about how the defund strategy couldn't possibly succeed." It was a matter of simple math, he said. There are only 46 Republicans in the senate, and when you add in the president, he knew a defunding effort had no chance of success.

After the interview, Costa, who's known for his understanding of and empathy for conservatives, tweeted of McConnell:

He's relieved the "quixotic" effort to make have a big standoff is over, and he reminds me he's been throwing cold water on it since July

— Robert Costa (@robertcostaNRO) October 17, 2013

History suggests otherwise. As TPM's Sahil Kapur reported at the time, the Senate minority leader declined to take a position when pressed by reporters about conservative efforts to block a government-funding resolution unless Obamacare is defunded.

"We've had a lot of internal discussions about the way forward this fall, on both the continuing resolution and ultimately the debt ceiling. And those discussions continue," McConnell said, according to Kapur's piece, published July 30. "I know they're going on on the House side as well. There's no particular announcement at this point, but you all are familiar with the various points of view about how we might go forward later this year."

We'll have to take McConnell at his word for what he did behind closed doors, but in not splashing cold water on the idea publicly, he helped create a vacuum in which the movement was allowed to flourish.

By Sept. 17 he still hadn't taken a position on a strategy for defunding Obamacare through the continuing resolution. As Jonathan Strong reported in National Review, "aides to both Boehner and McConnell actually intervened to ensure that comments both of their bosses made did not actually amount to taking a position. In the resulting vacuum, the push to defund Obamacare continued to gain momentum. And when Cantor finally revealed the House leadership's plan last week, it was too late — the seeds of dissent had already been planted."

Polling might offer some insight into his change of heart. McConnell was facing a variety of competing pressures from the beginning, including heat from his 2014 GOP primary challenger, Matt Bevin, who called on him to sign a pledge vowing never to support a continuing resolution if it funds Obamacare. As the political dangers of inciting government shutdown became increasingly apparent, that calculus started to look more and more off — and more and more like a political risk in a potential general-election campaign against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

In his interview with Costa, McConnell dismissed the notion that his navigation of the shutdown was driven by poll numbers, calling that "the Mother Jones thesis." It's not particularly controversial to suggest politicians are motivated in part by poll numbers, not in an election year. But to look at McConnell's actions devoid of the larger context misses the point. Republicans have been advocating gridlock and hostage-taking for years. In 2011, for instance, they took the debt ceiling hostage and won major policy concessions, though that likely had more to do with the fact that they'd won the 2010 election and thus its resulting mandate, as Ezra Klein reported in Wonkbook on Thursday. "Going forward, Republicans will be more afraid of this kind of brinksmanship," Klein predicted, "and Democrats will be far less afraid of it."

Indeed, the most passed-around line from the interview with Costa underscored Klein's point. "We're not going to do this again in connection with the debt ceiling or with a government shutdown," McConnell said.

McConnell deserves credit for helping to broker a deal at the end, and more generally, for his political savvy. But don't let him rewrite the history books with how he thwarted the GOP's big, dumb standoff idea. He didn't come early to that party.

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