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Mitch McConnell Is No Genius

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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For Jonathan Chait, the demise by filibuster of the Shaheen-Portman energy bill is an example of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s brilliance. I’m not so sure.

The story here is that Shaheen-Portmandied because Scott Brown, who is running against Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, requested it. And McConnell’s overriding strategy is to deny Democrats any bipartisan achievements:

For a voter paying close attention to the Senate’s machinations, this makes little sense: Republicans are arguing that their torpedoing of Shaheen’s bill proves Shaheen is a legislative failure. But few voters follow politics so closely, and even those reading detailed coverage of the bill’s failure would quickly get lost in an arcane procedural dispute that putatively caused its demise.

This dynamic — that voters do not follow the details of legislating, but form crude heuristic judgments based on the two parties’ ability to agree — is the essential strategic premise that has guided Republicans since 2009.

Which, Chait believes, is “strategically shrewd” for them.

The analysis of McConnell’s thinking is correct (and as Chait points out, McConnell has explicitly said what he’s up to). But is this a good strategy?

Maybe. Chait (and McConnell) are making two assumptions -- one about voters and one about politics more broadly -- and neither is necessarily true.

The first is that voters have some sort of intermediate-level understanding of what happens in Washington; they don’t pay enough attention to know which party spiked Shaheen-Portman, but they do pay enough attention that they would punish Shaheen for failure … or at least that they would reward her if she had succeeded.

Yes, it’s possible for the out-party to turn anything, no matter how bland, into a fierce partisan battle. But whether that affects vote choice is hard to show. In presidential elections, big-picture stuff (the state of the economy or issues of war and peace) are probably going to overwhelm everything else. For example, Republicans made the Affordable Care Act controversial, but President Barack Obama was re-elected with more or less the margin one would expect based on the big-picture fundamentals.

In subpresidential elections, we have evidence that if constituents can identify something they like about the incumbent, they will be more likely to vote for that candidate. They'll be less likely to vote for that person if they can identify something they don’t like. So there’s at least something for McConnell to shoot for there. After that, it gets tricky. Shaheen can continue running on her energy-efficiency bill, and Brown can continue to bash it, regardless of its fate on the Senate floor. Partisans will accept whatever their candidates say. Swing voters are typically less-informed and might not know about the bill, pass or fail. So I wouldn’t say that it’s a mistake for Brown’s campaign to want Shaheen-Portman to fail, but I’m very skeptical that approach will have any electoral effect in New Hampshire.

So the first problem with McConnellism is that it may not make much of a difference in elections.

Beyond that is the plain fact that politics isn’t only about elections. Elections are important, but politics is also about who-gets-what -- policy outcomes. There is a clear downside to McConnell-type rejection of compromise only because compromise legitimates the majority and its policies: Such rejectionism destroys any bargaining leverage the minority might have.

That doesn't matter in true parliamentary systems, because the minority has no leverage to begin with. That’s also been true in the House of Representatives (looked at in isolation) since the early 1970s: As long as the majority party sticks together, it can do pretty much whatever it wants. In the Senate, however, the minority party has had considerable leverage, which it has often used to secure policy gains (or to avoid high-priority policy losses). The McConnell strategy forfeits that leverage. That was seen most dramatically on the ACA. Republicans almost certainly could have changed the bill, and might even have been able to significantly modify its scope. But because absolute Republican opposition was a given, Democrats had no incentive to accept amendments. The result was a disaster for Republican policy preferences, even if it did help the party in the 2010 election cycle (though I remain a skeptic on that, too).

The other problem with McConnell-style rejectionism in the Senate is that exploiting the rules solely to frustrate the majority party risks backlash, which is exactly what happened (on nominations, at least). As I’ve said, the interests of individual senators lead to majority party support for some minority party influence and leverage, but no majority is going to allow absolute minority party rule for long. That's not important if the goal is simply to deny legitimacy to majority-party actions. But if policy outcomes are important, too, then giving the minority party pays a high price for that rhetorical gain.

Yes, McConnell is an innovator. That doesn’t mean that what he’s doing is helping Republicans.

  1. There’s a related and more complicated issue of the out-party potentially deliberately attempting to hurt a president’s re-election chances by making the fundamentals worse (by derailing legislation that would improve the economy, for example). I think that’s a more serious worry than the one Chait identifies. My argument here is purely about trying to make issues “controversial” by opposing them. The effect Chait talks about is equally present whether a bill fails (as in Shaheen-Portman) or passes (as in the ACA or Dodd-Frank). A “harm-the-economy” strategy requires changing public policy, not winning spin wars.

  2. The real innovator was probably Bob Dole in 1993, but he used rejectionism selectively, not across-the-board the way McConnell has by obstructing even minor bill and low-level nominations no one objects to.

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