Newt Gingrich, who orchestrated a historic Republican victory grounded in an actual policy agenda, currently has a better claim to being a great political mind, if only because we already know that he accomplished at least parts of his policy agenda. The late Ted Kennedy, whose work on immigration, health care, and many other issues still echo, has a much better claim to being a great political mind, though he may have been far inferior to McConnell as an electoral architect.
Like the Contract With America, McConnell's obstructionist strategy undeniably brought the GOP more seats. But it failed to stop Obama's historic health-care legislation, a change more substantive, significant, and lasting than anything McConnell has ever achieved. It failed to stop Obama's reelection in 2012, too. Opposing Obamacare outright also prevented the Republican Party from altering it. Influencing the bill wasn't necessary to serve the electoral interests of GOP legislators. But what about the substantive policy goals of Republicans? Had the GOP negotiated prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, would it be more to their liking now, even if one consequence was making some GOP pols worse off?
Right now, it isn't even clear what posture the GOP Congress will take toward health-care policy next year. The same goes for any number of other significant issues. Republicans are divided into factions and united mostly in a desire to obstruct Obama. Even with control of the House and the Senate, many in the party still want to focus on electoral strategy. Take National Review. Its post-midterm editorial counsels Republicans that they should beware the "trap" of governing—that they should put off substantive political goals and focus on electoral goals:
A prove-you-can-govern strategy will inevitably divide the party on the same tea-party-vs.-establishment lines that Republicans have just succeeded in overcoming. The media will in particular take any refusal to pass a foolish immigration bill that immediately legalizes millions of illegal immigrants as a failure to “govern.” ...
Even if Republicans passed this foolish test, it would do little for them. If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn’t they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016? Which brings us to the alternative course: building the case for Republican governance after 2016. That means being a responsible party, to be sure, just as the conventional wisdom has it. But part of that responsibility involves explaining what Republicans stand for—what, that is, they would do if they had the White House. And outlining a governing agenda for the future is a different matter from trying to govern in 2015.
If you've ever wondered why the Founders were so wary of political parties and factionalism, consider how dysfunctional American government would be if both major parties agreed to govern only when they controlled all of Congress and the White House. It's impossible to say with certainty that National Review's long game will fail. It's conceivable that the GOP could retain Congress and win the White House in 2016, and that all the politicians now setting aside substance to focus on future electoral gains will suddenly become principled conservative legislators eager to improve America once a member of their party retakes the White House.