Dan, I’m so glad you wrote this. When I was on the staff of the Senate Republican Policy Committee some years ago, we all had TVs at our desks tuned to the floor of the Senate. Apart from the entertaining foolishness of senators Chuck Dodd and Dick Durbin, the highlight was always the perpetual jousting between majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell. Reid was always flailing, and moping, and telegraphing, in all emotional earnestness, the Democratic party’s talking-points memo, regardless how silly the talking points.
What a lovely contrast with McConnell! Always composed, imperturbable, and clever, McConnell reminded me of a Prussian general implementing the various phases of a carefully considered attack plan, with utter detachment and steely determination.
After a whole day of dealing with McConnell, Harry Reid’s demeanor was straight out of that classic Jacques Brel tune that starts “Ami, rempli mon verre” — “Friend, fill my glass.” Reid would flop his forearm on the podium with an exhausted air, as if finally arriving at a bar, and (addressing whoever happened to be presiding), say something like, “Mr. President, we’ve tried everything to placate the Republicans, but again, the minority leader’s untoward maneuver . . .” I’ve never seen anyone who, at the end of a grueling day, so visibly and badly just needed a drink. When it was his turn to reply to Reid’s sighs and tears, Senator McConnell’s congenital sang froid sometimes gave way to a smile or a chuckle that he could hardly repress.
It was impossible not to laugh, and it never got old — and it’s still happening, day after day.
To your substantive point, despite the decidedly moderate tendencies of my boss at the time (the recently retired senator Kay Bailey Hutchison) my own personal views were always in sympathy with those of Senator DeMint and his “faction,” which I used to refer to, in the days before “Tea Party” came into common usage, as the “Alamo conservatives.” I called them that because, in their dedication to core conservative principles, they were willing to accept certain defeat in the near term. They weren’t always right on specific policies — and when they were wrong it was almost always because the staffers didn’t understand the given issue well enough. But their principles were right. And their principles deserved to win out in a Senate GOP conference that had far too often bought into the allure of “moderation,” the GOP establishment’s habitual excuse for expanding federal overreach further and further in the service of special interests.
As foreign- and defense-policy counsel to the Republican Policy Committee, I saw heading off potential conflicts between the staffs of the DeMint faction and McConnell’s leadership office as part of my responsibilities. DeMint and McConnell always got along better than is commonly supposed — but not so much their staffs. My view was that the DeMint faction was always right on principle, but McConnell was always right on the specifics. The key to preventing conflict, and helping McConnell preserve the precious unity of the GOP conference in the Senate, was to understand the policy and the politics of a given issue well enough to forge common ground among the staff.
The situation of the GOP conference in the Senate today is much better than it was in 2008, when I was there, because the principles of the tea-party “Alamo conservatives” have become mainstream among the party leadership. That is the deeper significance of Senator DeMint’s moving over to take charge of the Heritage Foundation, a frisbee’s throw from the Senate. McConnell’s convictions have always been with the conservatives, as Dan pointed out. But it’s up to him to maintain the unity of the conference and leverage that unity to secure as much of the conservative agenda as possible.
My own view, as a former Senate staffer, is that Mitch McConnell is a priceless leader for the GOP in the Senate. He has made absolutely as much as could have been made of the Senate GOP’s opposition to the Obama agenda, given the votes they had. It’s impossible to imagine that any other senator could have done as well, as elegantly, as Mitch McConnell has done. And it’s my fervent hope that he will continue to lead the GOP conference in the Senate well into its inevitable recapture of the majority. The wisest course for the Senate tea-party faction now is to continue to fight for their core priorities while deferring to McConnell on the specifics, in order to strengthen the unity that he has managed so well in these difficult years as their leader.