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October 19, 2013 11:43 AM McConnell Totally Said No Before Saying No Was Cool

The senator deserves some of the blame his party's lack of good ideas.

By Max Ehrenfreund

A number of journalists have been casting about desperately for sources of hope, and some of them have settled on moderate Republicans, especially Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Paul Kane calls him “perhaps the most accomplished congressional dealmaker of his time.” McConnell hasn’t been shy about portraying himself as a savior, either. “I’ve demonstrated, once again, that when the Congress is in gridlock and the country is at risk, I’m the guy who steps forward and tries to get us out of the ditch,” he told Robert Costa.

McConnell has no right to say that about himself. He is has engaged in as much obstructionism as the worst of them, and his ideas are partly responsible for bringing Republicans to their current state of disarray.

The senator from Kentucky was the original naysayer. Soon after President Obama’s election, McConnell instructed Republicans to oppose Obama at every opportunity. The goal appears to have been to make sure that the country was chaotically governed for four years so that the president would not win a second term. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” McConnell said. “If he was for it, we had to be against it,” former Sen. George Voinovich (R-Oh.) told Mike Grunwald. McConnell “wanted everyone to hold the fort. All he cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory.”

This is the kind of dealmaker McConnell is. He will make a deal or put a halt to legislative action altogether, depending where he believes the political advantage lies.

It also seems that McConnell’s strategy of opposition has seriously damaged his party’s ability to develop and propose their own original ideas. Conservatives do have plenty of good ideas, but when constructive legislating is off the table for electoral reasons, it’s easy to speculate that legislators and their staffs will devote less time and fewer resources to thinking about those ideas — how to implement them and how to include them as part of a complete legislative agenda. It does seem clear that the Republicans in the House are simply taking their cue from McConnell, even though he chides them for their ineffectiveness in his interview with Costa. It was McConnell who first declared uniform opposition to be the mark of loyal conservatism.

When a party has no ideas of its own, negotiations become impossible. The cause of the most recent crisis was that Republicans had no positive demands to offer — no new policies they wanted to see enacted. They could only offer negative ones — existing policies they wanted postponed or terminated, specifically, the health care law — which, of course, Democrats did not accept. Had there been a positive, thoughtful G.O.P. agenda, Democrats could have conceded one or more of its elements, allowing Republicans to save face without engaging in brinksmanship and perhaps even implementing a worthwhile program or two.

McConnell insisted on putting politics before policy, which is exactly the kind of thinking that has crippled his party. He can be credited for rescuing Republicans, but only from his own mistakes.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund

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