Politics & Policy

Show Mitch McConnell the Door

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Mark Wilson/Getty)

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner decided to retire rather than chance being ousted by his own colleagues. Despite this lucky break, the congressional GOP has little chance of winning back disenchanted Republican voters unless it also shows Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the door. Continued Republican control of the Senate is on the line.

A brand-new poll reveals that 72 percent of Republican primary voters are dissatisfied with McConnell and Boehner. Only 2 percent of those polled were “very satisfied” with the party’s two congressional leaders, who the majority believe have accomplished essentially nothing.

The situation is actually worse than the poll would indicate: Republican rank-and-file members across the country aren’t just disappointed, they’re incensed. This malaise will only deepen if — as is likely — congressional Republicans lose the debate with Obama over government funding for Planned Parenthood.

The fight should have been an easy one to win. While slightly more Americans typically self-identify as “pro-choice” than as “pro-life,” Planned Parenthood’s recently revealed conduct is beyond the pale for most. Some 64 percent of Americans favor banning abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy, and 80 percent support a ban after the second trimester. Allegedly, not only have Planned Parenthood clinics performed illegal late-term abortions, but they have been paid for fetus parts. Simply insisting that government funds should not be given to an organization engaged in this activity was a ready-made issue for Republicans to win with broad support.

Yet McConnell and Boehner lost the battle before it even began. By entering the argument over whether or not to “shut down the government,” they were accepting a misleading narrative that favors their opponents. Republican leaders should have emphasized that Congress was inevitably going to fund the 99.9 percent of government that didn’t involve giving taxpayer funds to an organization involved in a repugnant practice, and that it would be President Obama who would “shut down the government” were he to veto the appropriations bill. This alternative narrative could be politically persuasive and has the added benefit of being true. It would put the onus on Democrats to defend a veto that disrupted the government to fund something unpopular.

However, getting this point across would require two steps at which McConnell and Boehner have repeatedly failed: wielding communications deftly and getting bills to Obama’s desk to force vetoes — or, better yet, acquiescence.

Rank-and-file Republicans and plenty of independents think that the GOP-led Congress has accomplished nothing.

Democrats themselves set the standard for this approach. When the political lineup in Washington was reversed from 1989 to 1992, and Democrats controlled Congress under a Republican president, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell sent bill after bill to President George H. W. Bush to force vetoes that cast Republicans in an unflattering light. Obama has had to veto only four bills over two terms; the elder Bush was forced to veto 44 bills during his single term, including popular legislation on maternity leave, the minimum wage, civil rights, and curbs on trade with China.  

George Mitchell achieved this without ever having a filibuster-proof majority. Republicans probably knew then that if they tried to filibuster everything, majority Democrats would have curbed their power. However, minority Senate Democrats today face no such threat. They are repeatedly assured that McConnell’s support for the filibuster is absolute. His aides say this reflects McConnell’s support for the institution of the Senate, but this is disingenuous. From 1920 to 1970 there was an average of just one filibuster per year; the practice’s subsequent explosion has hurt the institution, including in the eyes of voters. Furthermore, if the Framers had wanted the Senate to require a supermajority to do anything at all, they would have said so in the Constitution. They didn’t.

These developments aren’t just inside baseball. Rank-and-file Republicans and plenty of independents think that the GOP-led Congress has accomplished nothing. A likely defeat over Planned Parenthood funding and rumored McConnell machinations to revive the Export-Import Bank will pour salt on the wound.

#share#The result of this disenchantment will be a lack of enthusiasm for the GOP’s congressional races at the worst possible time. In 2016, Republicans must defend 24 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 10. It will be nearly the reverse of 2014, when Republicans had a numeric advantage from the outset. While the GOP can hope that a likely takeover of the White House will save some Republican senators, presidential coattails are largely a thing of the past: Bill Clinton and both Bushes won the White House for their parties while losing Senate seats. Obama fared better, but the 2008 election took place under circumstances unlikely to recur in 2016.

Put simply, the base needs a reason to get excited about helping Republicans win congressional seats, and this will be impossible if McConnell remains at the helm. The problem isn’t that McConnell is insufficiently conservative by tea-party standards. The problem is that he is unwilling or unable to fight effectively.

The next Republican president undoubtedly will want a Senate that possesses a GOP majority and is capable of passing legislation. Unless Republicans dump Mitch McConnell soon, neither seems likely.

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