There’s been a lot of discussion — perhaps too much discussion — about Ben Sasse’s statement that he could “absolutely” vote for Mitch McConnell as GOP leader in the Senate if, as expected, he wins in November.
Theoretically, Mitch McConnell may not even be in the Senate next year; his lead in the polls in Kentucky against Democrat Allison Lundergan Grimes is pretty slim lately. But let’s assume a longtime Republican incumbent with enormous resources and the ability to call in favors from just about anybody in the GOP wins a midterm election in Kentucky, which is usually a pretty safe bet.
At a gathering of Republicans in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, last month, Senator Tim Scott was asked whether he would support McConnell. Scott smiled and said, “I’m going to dodge that question,” — laughter from the audience — “and let me tell you why I’m going to dodge that question: Right now, I don’t know who’s going to be running for leader.”
Few would argue that Tim Scott is a RINO; for many reasons, public declarations of support for a GOP Senate leader in January 2015 are a lousy measuring stick for squish-itude. First, a reminder of who’s running the Senate these days:
Way to go, Nevada. Way to go.
How do you like Mitch McConnell? Well, compared to whom? Any conservative who scoffs, “anyone would be better than McConnell!” hasn’t thought the prospects through very well.
Paraphrasing a good monologue from Jay Nordlinger, conservatives used to lament that Senate minority leader Howard Baker was too soft, and that they needed a leader who was tougher, like Bob Dole. Then Dole disappointed them, and they felt refreshed and reassured at the prospect of Trent Lott. Several gargantuan, pork-laden appropriations cycles later, they warmed to the prospect of Bill Frist . . . and you can see where this is going.
The Senate Republican leader is never the most conservative member of the caucus, and the most conservative member of the caucus will never be the Senate Republican leader. Full stop. It’s the nature of the job; you have to be elected by a majority of your caucus and your role is, ideally, to lead the whole caucus and ideally be trusted by that whole caucus. A party leader has to build consensus, and it’s almost impossible to do if you’re defined yourself through your career at one extreme of the party (say, Susan Collins) or the other (say, Tom Coburn, lifetime ACU rating of 98).
Secondly, the most conservative member of the GOP Senate caucus very rarely wants to run for majority leader. One of the key roles as party leader is to negotiate with leaders of the opposite party and get the best deal you can. When you’re not in negotiations, it’s easy — and, admittedly, sometimes accurate — to say drawing a harder line could have gotten a better deal. Once you’re the leader doing the negotiating, you have the task of arguing that the half of loaf you’ve secured is the biggest fraction of the bread anyone could get — and now some other young whippersnapper is saying he could have gotten a better deal.
Maybe some other Senate Republican will challenge McConnell as leader in January 2015. Maybe (probably) not. There will be more time to worry about and debate this after Election Day — when we know whether or not Republicans will be selecting a Senate majority leader.