Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 4, 2011

MITCH MCCONNELL UNDERSTANDS THE GAME ALL TOO WELL.... We talked recently about why Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is such a good Senate Minority Leader. It's not because he's honest (he's not); it's not because he negotiates in good faith (he doesn't); it's not because he respects institutional norms (he doesn't); and it's not because he's proven himself willing to put the nation's interests above his own petty partisanship (he hasn't).

No, what makes McConnell excel in his job is his understanding of the process, and his strategic understanding of shaping debates. Consider this gem from Josh Green's lengthy profile on the Minority Leader. (via Matt Yglesias)

"We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off [legislation advanced by Democrats]," McConnell says. "Because we thought -- correctly, I think -- that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the 'bipartisan' tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there's a broad agreement that that's the way forward."

McConnell said something very similar to National Journal almost a year ago: "Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do. Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing [on health care reform] had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion."

I realize this might seem obvious, but it's really important to understanding how McConnell and Senate Republicans operate, and it's often overlooked. In fact, I think Republicans tend to understand this better than Democrats do.

The basic civics model tells us that if a policy agenda receives an electoral mandate, and enjoys support in public opinion polls, the minority is put in a tough spot. If they go along and allow the agenda to advance, the majority will rack up victories on popular ideas. If the minority fights to kill the agenda, those lawmakers are bucking prevailing attitudes, ignoring election results, and putting themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.

But the basic civics model is wrong, or at least, overly simplistic. The public's reactions are shaped by officials' reactions. The challenge for a minority party isn't whether to defy the country's wishes, but rather, how to convince the country that their opposition, in and of itself, necessarily makes the majority's agenda dubious.

The way McConnell sees it, for much of the American mainstream, "bipartisan support" is akin to a seal of approval. That's true. But by ensuring that Democratic ideas, even popular ones, didn't receive Republican backing, McConnell wasn't bucking public attitudes, he was changing public attitudes. Voters assume there must be something wrong with partisan ideas -- after all, if they were moderate, sensible proposals, negotiated in good faith, then there'd be more Republican support for them.

As such, GOP opposition to popular ideas necessarily makes them less popular.

It's why McConnell wouldn't allow Republicans to compromise, emphasized party unity above all, and even rejected the GOP's own ideas when Democrats embraced them. The goal was to defeat Democratic proposals, even ones with broad national support that were good for the country, while undermining their popularity.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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The goal was to defeat Democratic proposals, even ones with broad national support that were good for the country, while undermining their popularity.

As Krugman so aptly put it, Republican leaders are arsonists dressed as firemen.

Posted by: BruceFromOhio on January 4, 2011 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

In other words, party before country, first, last, and always.

Obama kept trying to be the bipartisan president, and McConnell and the rest of them just sat back and let him do all the work for them.

Posted by: getplaning on January 4, 2011 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

"Obama kept trying to be the bipartisan president, and McConnell and the rest of them just sat back and let him do all the work for them."

Kept trying? He was a success. He pleased Wall Street and the oil industry!

Posted by: Win-Win on January 4, 2011 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Disturbing and depressing.

Posted by: Elizabelle on January 4, 2011 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

"As Krugman so aptly put it, Republican leaders are arsonists dressed as firemen."

Ah yes, the bought writer.

Posted by: Columnist on January 4, 2011 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

I think that's exactly right. Low information swing voters don't really know how radical the current Republican party is. It is so radical it walked away from there own ideas rather than give the opposition party any victories.

I always knew conservatism at it's core wasn't very intellectual but at least I thought it had an ideological underpinning to it.

What we found out is the Republican party is a reactionary, hyperpartisan organization intent on achieving power by any means. Let's hope voters catch on to that, and soon.

Posted by: Archon on January 4, 2011 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Which is why, also, fuck Ben Nelson.

Posted by: DonBoy on January 4, 2011 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: Archon on January 4, 2011 at 1:48 PM

And the Democratic Party is the bagman for Wall Street. Two worlds clash!

Posted by: CT on January 4, 2011 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Archon. . . I hope the voters catch on. But I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for it. Idiocracy is now.

Posted by: Mitch on January 4, 2011 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

"about his own petty partisanship" - I think you meant "above."

Posted by: andrew on January 4, 2011 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

We Democrats should not criticize but learn. People are not rational when they have incomplete information. This is another case where George Lakoff and his concepts from advanced marketing (i.e. Framing) can help us understand how the Repugs continue to dominate the media war.

Posted by: String on January 4, 2011 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

"And the Democratic Party is the bagman for Wall Street. Two worlds clash!"

Not sure I get the point of this. All I know is the Dems passed financial reform that was watered down due to mainly Republican opposition, and the Republicans have vowed to kill that weak tea of a bill.

Posted by: Mark-NC on January 4, 2011 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

"...McConnell wasn't bucking public attitudes, he was changing public attitudes."

...a task made easier with the backing of a propaganda machine such as Fox News.

wikipedia definition of propaganda: "Propaganda is a form of communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience."

Posted by: delNorte on January 4, 2011 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

"We Democrats should not criticize but learn."

You could learn to stop voting for people who are bought and paid for by the interests that bleed you dry, line their own pockets and laugh all the way to the bank. But I digress...

Posted by: 101 on January 4, 2011 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans would not be able to get away with that strategy if the voting public were not so gullible.

Posted by: June on January 4, 2011 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly. There was no bipartisanship. Obama hurts himself and betrays his supporters by denying it.

Posted by: Doug on January 4, 2011 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

"Not sure I get the point of this. All I know is the Dems passed financial reform that was watered down due to mainly Republican opposition, and the Republicans have vowed to kill that weak tea of a bill."

Yeah, Wall Street got no money, not a cent!

Posted by: CT on January 4, 2011 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Obama hurts himself and betrays his supporters by denying it.

The hell he does. He enriches his supporters and himself. Ask Lloyd Blankfein.

Posted by: 101 on January 4, 2011 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

To a large extent this is attributing too much importance to the direct effect of McConnell and other Republicans on public opinion. What gives the Republican agenda its staying power is its money backing, that is the effect on lawmakers themselves and on non-issue-oriented parts of their campaigns (that is, negative advertising). Lawmakers can be persuaded to defy real public opinion because they know they will lose financial backing unless they do so.

Posted by: skeptonomist on January 4, 2011 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

The way McConnell sees it, for much of the American mainstream, "bipartisan support" is akin to a seal of approval.

While true, it has been the Democratic party, lead by President Obama, that have bent over backwards to create this perception. You can't go 10 seconds without Obama praising "bipartisanship" and "consensus".

It hasn't always been thus. When the GOP controlled the House, and specifically when DeLay was the Speaker, the GOP would REFUSE to pass legislation unless it received a vote from the "majority of the majority".

The point was to create a perception that the Democrats were completely irrelevant. Even if a majority could theoretically be crafted together between the GOP and the Democrats, DeLay wouldn't allow a vote. Unless a majority of the GOP voted for a bill, it would not pass.

The clear message was that the Dems might as well pack up their bags and go back home until they regained the majority because every vote they cast was completely meaningless.

Obviously, the extreme tactics of DeLay are not to be emulated, but if Obama had spent 2 years championing the "will of the majority" and "up or down votes" instead of conceding that 60 votes are necessary for everything and praising bipartisanship in principle then McConnell's plan would have been much less effective.

Posted by: square1 on January 4, 2011 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Also, Benen vastly overestimates the importance of public perception on the legislative agenda.

The GOP would love to be obstructionist AND be rewarded for it, as they were in 2010. But if forced to choose between pleasing the voters and pleasing their corporate masters, the GOP will choose the latter every time.

Posted by: square1 on January 4, 2011 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

"The goal was to defeat Democratic proposals, even ones with broad national support that were good for the country, while undermining their popularity."

And the Democrats learned what from all of this? Niente!

They acted as a deer in the headlights would, except most "drivers" when see such easy prey try their damnedest to avoid a collision. The GOP ran the Democrats over and over and over. Road kill is placing it too lightly. As Moe from the Stooges said: "I'll murdelize them". And they most certainly did. Nauseating...

Posted by: stevio on January 4, 2011 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

"Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion."

That and a corporately owned media that will NOT discuss the truth; only what 'he said - he said'. Our great liberal media that is now not much more than an echo chamber and message amplifier for the wealthy and corporate interests that they serve.

Posted by: SadOldVet on January 4, 2011 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

All I know is the Dems passed financial reform that was watered down due to mainly Republican opposition

This is complete nonsense. I can't think of a single major FinReg provision that was championed by the WH and Congressional leaders that was removed for GOP approval.

The WH never wanted to break up TBTF banks. They never to ban reckless derivatives trading, like naked credit default swaps.

They never supported significantly increasing capital requirements of the largest banks.

They never wanted the largest banks to contribute to a bailout fund in case of another economic collapse.

They never wanted a truly independent consumer financial-protection bureau. They first fought to place it in the Fed, an organization that doesn't give a damn about consumers, just so the bankers could keep an eye on the agency. Then they fought against Warren, until the hue and cry became to loud to ignore. Then she was appointed to set it up and not to run it.

Posted by: square1 on January 4, 2011 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

McConnell says. "Because we thought -- correctly, I think -- that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan."


Once again, this emphasizes the need for Obama to be more bipartisan.

Posted by: kc on January 4, 2011 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

@square1 - It's rare that I've seen someone call something out as "complete nonsense" and then back it up with complete nonsense of their own (unless we're talking about Republicans, where that is par for the course).

Hopefully, I'll have time later to come back to this thread to refute with facts what you posted.

Posted by: June on January 4, 2011 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

Feel free to try, June.

Posted by: square1 on January 4, 2011 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

@square1 - It's rare that I've seen someone call something out as "complete nonsense" and then back it up with complete nonsense of their own (unless we're talking about Republicans, where that is par for the course).

Hopefully, I'll have time later to come back to this thread to refute with facts what you posted.
---
Also, tell us how Obama and Dems do not support plutocracy.

Posted by: Respond on January 4, 2011 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

@Respond - if you're really interested, go read through legislation signed into law by Obama in his first two years, go read the list of legislation passed by the Democratically-controlled House and Senate (I'm talking take a look at the whole picture, not just the favorite whipping boys of the "corporat-ocracy" and "plutocracy" crowd - and that question answers itself in the Democratic Party's favor.

Posted by: June on January 4, 2011 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

[sockpuppeting will be summarily deleted -- mod.]

Posted by: Respond on January 4, 2011 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

Wall Street got screwed. Terrible stuff...

?

Posted by: June on January 4, 2011 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

Stop explaining what Republicans do as though they are doing the right thing. What McConnell did and does is obnoxious and this should be your message.

Don't you think you should spend more time complimenting Democrats rather than Republicans? Whose side are you on?

Posted by: Paul Siegel on January 4, 2011 at 6:37 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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