Rumors of Mitch McConnell's Political Genius Are Premature

The next Senate Majority Leader has proved himself a master at winning elections. But will those victories translate into any real accomplishments?

This is Mitch McConnell's moment. Thanks in large part to the obstructionist electoral strategy that he honed and implemented as soon as President Obama took office, he is poised to realize his lifelong ambition of leading the U.S. Senate, having done as much as anyone to bring Republicans back into the majority. These achievements have prompted even staunch opponents of his party and ideological affiliations to acknowledge his talent as an architect of electoral victories. But the suddenly popular notion that "Mitch McConnell may be the greatest political mind of his generation," as one close observer of American politics put it, fails to draw a distinction between a person or a party winning on Election Day and their subsequent success or failure when governing.

Greatness requires electoral wins in service of substantive wins.

The distinction was once clear to many Tea Party Republicans. They claimed to trace their disaffection to a GOP majority that expanded the size and power of the federal government, deepened the country's debt, and enabled a Democratic wave in 2008. McConnell may be the greatest electoral mind of his generation (though even that claim seems tinged by excitable present-bias), but if he's to earn the title "greatest political mind of his generation" his fellow Republicans had better get busy. They'd better change something significant in a manner that endures.

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.

But come on.

Most politicians are inclined to delay or forgo the tough business of governing to preserve their electability. When encouraged to postpone governing until a later date by the very intellectuals who are supposed to be urging substantive results, the most likely result is that the long-anticipated time for actually governing will never arrive. It's like an English professor telling a star pupil, "Your goal is to write the great American novel? I'd love that. Go to law school, get a job at a top-10 firm, work 70 hours a week, make partner by 35, retire at 40 with all the money you'll ever need, and then you'll have the time to write the most awesome novel possible."

Or perhaps the better analogy would be to tell a young novelist, "First write five or six hack thrillers with paint-by-numbers plots to build a huge following. Then when you write your meaningful masterpiece you'll have a platform that ensures influence."

That is not how the world works.

It may be that McConnell has positioned the GOP to effect substantive change that conservatives will cheer for a generation. It could also be that how he achieved this electoral majority in Congress will doom it to achieve little that endures. Time will tell. Until then, let's hold off on dubbing McConnell his generation's best political mind, or the greatest strategist in contemporary politics. So far, the 2014 strategy he pioneered has only benefited Republican politicians.