Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Is McConnell Any Good?

Evaluating Congressional leaders is not easy.  An enormous portion of their jobs is difficult for outsiders to get any read on at all.  No Senator is going to say that he was planning to vote yes until his party leadership cut a deal with him or threatened him with punishment unless he voted no.  And reporters aren't usually all that interested in chasing down those stories, with occasional exceptions for high visibility bills.  That's especially true on the Senate side, where leaders have less influence (and therefore it's harder to tell which party actions should be attributable to leadership), and it's especially true for the minority party -- since what they do receives less scrutiny, and doesn't have the convenient goalpost of whether legislation passes or not.

All of this throat-clearing is because I really don't know what to make of the Carl Hulse and Adam Nagourney NYT profile of Mitch McConnell and his rejectionist strategy.  Jonathan Chait thinks it's pretty straightforward: rejectionism works, it's the only rational strategy for the minority party, and McConnell is great at it.

I'm not really convinced, on several points.  I'll start with McConnell.  Is he responsible for GOP unity in the Senate?  Perhaps, but it's also the case that GOP Senators may be terrified of primary challenges from the right, and of course as a group Senate Republicans are a pretty conservative bunch.  It's also true the one time it really mattered so far, McConnell could not keep Republicans united against the stimulus bill.  Nor could he prevent the defection of Arlen Specter, which of course did have external factors, but seems to me at least to be something that party leadership has some responsibility for.  The Times mentions Specter, but only in passing; surely that's a significant Republican failure, no?  McConnell also could not prevent several Republican retirements, some in swing seats; again, his influence on those decisions is limited, but again one would think that an effective party leader would be able to keep his Senators from leaving. 

On then to the general success or failure of Senate Republicans within the Senate.  They certainly have blocked or slowed many items on the Democrats' agenda.  However, the Democrats were able to get a health care bill (through the Senate, at least) that looks an awful lot like Barack Obama's original plan.  The Democrats were able to get a stimulus bill passed that was an awful lot like what Obama asked for.  It's still too soon to tell for the jobs bill/second stimulus, but so far Harry Reid's strategy of breaking it into multiple bills appears to be working, with Republicans supplying needed support.  The student loan reform bill will apparently be passed along with health care.  Republicans have effectively blocked or slowed judicial and executive branch nominations, but only in low-level, very low-visibility cases.  The key nominations -- the cabinet, and of course Obama's first Supreme Court nomination -- went relatively smoothly.  The significant legislative victories McConnell can take credit for, it seems to me, are likely success in blocking financial regulation and climate/energy.  However, both of those have been hurt as much by Democratic internal division as by unanimous Republican opposition.  There are any number of smaller items that have been derailed by GOP rejectionism, but if health care and at least most of the jobs agenda passes, I think this Congress will wind up as a historically successful one for the Democrats.

The obvious rejoinder to that is: of course the Democrats are passing stuff!  They have huge majorities!  The thing to explain is why they aren't passing everything!

Well, perhaps.  Perhaps, however, a creative minority could have forged a centrist coalition with Ben Nelson, Lieberman, and two or three others that could have actually stymied health care reform.  McConnell did a great job of holding together his then-forty GOP Senators, but failed to attract even a single Democrat.   And the one thing that Senate Republicans did do that meaningfully slowed health care reform wasn't rejectinism; it was negotiation.  If its true that one faction within the White House was eager to settle for a much smaller bill, it's possible that GOP insistence on rejectionist strategies in August (when Grassley started talking about death panels) might have been a real mistake, at least on the substance of the bill.

This gets to the main evidence that the Times, and I think Chait, consider in McConnell's favor: the external effects of Senate obstructionism.  Hulse and Nagourney report::
“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.” 
That makes sense...but it is not confirmed by the fate of two recent other major initiatives.  By that logic, Republican efforts to stigmatize the stimulus should have been harmed by the three Republican Senators who supported it, but in fact that does not appear to be the case.  Ever more telling is the reaction to TARP, which was supported by Republicans from President George W. Bush on down, but is now much-reviled by all mainstream conservatives.  Strong opposition form prominent conservative voices certainly works to push public opinion of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.  What McConnell, and what the actions of Olympia Snowe (or even marginal moderates such as Chuck Grassley or Kit Bond) can do to affect any of that seems a harder call to me.  And for those who do not simply accept opinion leadership from conservatives, it's just as likely that the poor economy, and not forceful Republican opposition to Democratic policies, is the prime factor influencing public opinion.  At any rate, the biggest movement in Obama's approval ratings were in Spring '09, before Republicans really started effectively filibustering everything, and similarly its difficult to find a lot of correlation between Republican Senate obstruction (as opposed to Republican and conservative opposition) and the polling on health care reform

Just to boil that down: I'm sure that had Republicans in general rallied to support the president on the stimulus, health care reform, and other issues, that Obama's approval ratings right now would be at least somewhat higher, and those policies would almost certainly poll better.  But if McConnell had chosen just to oppose, but not obstruct, most of Obama's agenda, I don't really see much evidence that Obama and the Democrats would be doing any better than they are now -- assuming, that is, that they get health care reform done. 

As I've been saying for a while, this is a hopeless fight.  Republicans are going to do well in November, because the president's party generally does badly, because the Democrats have done so well in the last two cycles that they have a lot of vulnerable seats, and because the economy stinks.  The odds are very good that whatever strategies the Republicans adopt will get credit for Republican gains, because most political actors and most reporters tend to attribute election results to strategies and tactics, not to structural factors.  In this case, that's even more likely, because Republicans are repeating the strategy that received the credit from most actors and reporters for their victory in similar circumstances in 1994, and so a lot of people are already primed to credit a similar strategy for the 2010 elections, regardless of whether it was actually particularly true in 1994, or whether it will be true in 2010.

So, to put it all together: Republicans are only somewhat responsible for changes in public opinion; within that, the Senate is only minimally responsible for the overall Republican effort; within that, the Senate Republican Leader is only somewhat responsible for the actions of Republicans in the Senate.  And of those actions, it's not particularly clear that Mitch McConnell is successful; he has some clear wins, but some other clear, and important, losses (beginning with Specter). 

None of which is to say that McConnell is a bad Minority Leader.  Just saying that I'm not seeing a lot of evidence in the NYT story, and I'm not at all convinced that rejectionism is helping the GOP.

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