Politicians out of power like to promise the moon and the stars to voters. They make contracts and pledges to America. Some vow to make the oceans recede and usher in a new era of hope and change. Others merely claim they have the power to make D.C. listen. But you don’t hear any grand promises coming from Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who hopes to become majority leader if the 2014 elections go the GOP's way. He just wants to put some points on the board.
“We’re hoping the American people will give us a chance to set the agenda,” McConnell told THE WEEKLY STANDARD in an interview. “I’ve been the defensive coordinator for eight years. I’d like to have a chance to be the offensive coordinator. You can score on defense—I thought the Budget Control Act was an example of scoring on defense—but it’s harder to score on defense.”
But how many points can Republicans score—what can they practically achieve with majorities in the House and the Senate—as long as the White House is occupied by President Obama? “I think that will depend on him,” McConnell said, referring to the president. “If your definition of achievement is actually having something signed into law, we obviously have to be completely honest with our supporters that that will depend upon him being willing to support what we’ve done.”
McConnell mentioned free trade agreements and “comprehensive revenue-neutral tax reform” as areas where the president might be willing to drop his current demands (on tax reform, Obama wants $1 trillion in new revenue) and work with Republicans if they win a majority. That may be good policy, but it’s unlikely to inspire Tea Partiers. "In Washington, what passes for bold is, 'Hey, we're for revenue neutral tax reform.' It's like, I don't care. I would just as soon be back at home or practicing medicine," Kentucky's junior senator Rand Paul said in a recent speech.
What will Republicans do on immigration with a Senate majority? McConnell voted against “comprehensive immigration reform” earlier this year, but would he be willing to bring up a bill that included a path to citizenship? “I can’t imagine that a Republican Congress is going to be interested in giving the kind of bonus for an illegal entry,” he said.
What about a bill that stopped short of granting full citizenship but legalized the status of illegal immigrants? “I’m interested in the other parts of the bill,” McConnell said. “I think we ought to move to a merit-based legal immigration system and move away from things like country quotas and chain migration. There are improvements that ought to be made. I don’t think we’re there yet on border security. We’d be open to discussing the issue,” McConnell said. But, he added, such measures would be moved “in pieces,” not in a “comprehensive” bill.
On health care, Republicans will face a dilemma if they win a Senate majority. Will they pass a bill that both repeals Obamacare and replaces it with a conservative alternative? Or is it pointless to vote on a replacement plan until a Republican occupies the White House? McConnell didn’t give a definitive answer, saying, “we’ll have to see what it looks like. Our goal is to get rid of the entire thing.”
“We will pursue also a lot of the good ideas that have been percolating both in the House and Senate. Over there, they’ve passed a lot of legislation that is very, very good and drops into a black hole. That won’t happen anymore,” McConnell said. “We’ll put things on the president’s desk that he may veto, and that’s the way it is. But we may be able to put some things on that he’ll sign.”
“If he hangs out on the left, like he has since the 2010 election, honestly I think it will be difficult to get right-of-center achievements signed into law,” McConnell said. “If he moves to the center like Bill Clinton did who signed welfare reform and agree with a Republican Congress to balance the budget, we may be able to do some business together. It’s really up to him.”
Of course, unlike Clinton in 1995, Obama is not concerned about his own reelection anymore. And after the 2013 government shutdown, Republicans are unlikely to engage in the kind of brinksmanship on the debt ceiling that resulted in the passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act. This year, Republican leaders, including McConnell, allowed a debt limit hike with no strings attached until March 2015. “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of some kind of achievement for the country in connection with raising the debt ceiling,” McConnell said. “Sometimes it’s been a pretty good tool. Certainly it wasn’t lately.”
The only reason to think President Obama would work with a Republican congressional majority is that he genuinely believes a policy is a good idea or thinks public opinion requires a compromise to protect his legacy and keep the White House in Democratic hands. In other words, Republicans have reason to hope, but they shouldn’t expect too much change—at least not until 2017.
McConnell’s assessment of what Republicans can accomplish the next two years will strike his fans as Madisonian realism, but it will come across as establishmentarian weakness to his detractors who are now waging a bitter primary campaign against him in Kentucky. That feud escalated this week after McConnell told the New York Times: “I think we are going to crush them everywhere.”
“I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country,” he said. The Times reported that McConnell was “referring to the network of activist organizations working against him and two Republican incumbents in Kansas and Mississippi while engaging in a handful of other contests.” But McConnell told me he was referring to just one organization—the Senate Conservatives Fund—and does not have a preference in open-seat races, such as Nebraska, where the SCF has endorsed a candidate.
“I think it’s important to remember a couple things. Number one, the Senate Conservatives Fund started the fight with me. They picked the fight. I didn’t,” McConnell said. He called said the SCF is simply out to make a buck and has “been giving conservatism a bad name.”
“A group that buys a luxury townhouse on Capitol Hill that has a hot tub and a wine cellar strikes me as a group primarily interested in doing well for themselves,” McConnell said. “We know their business model is only to criticize Republicans, ignoring the fact with their donors that we have a Democratic Senate and that Barack Obama is in the White House. So that’s the group that I singled out. I’m a fan of the enthusiasm that the Tea Party movement writ large has brought to our country.”
McConnell blamed the SCF, a group instrumental in engineering the “defund Obamacare” campaign that precipitated the government shutdown, for focusing on “cooked up tactical differences that have done a lot of damage to our ability to govern.” Asked if the shutdown did lasting damage to the Republican party, McConnell said: “There would have been, but fortunately once the attention turned to Obamacare, 16 days later than it would have otherwise, I think we got a second chance, and the American people are taking a second look at us.”
“The lesson obviously that was learned was that the Speaker and I were correct when we said to Republicans as early as July that that was a strategy that had no chance of success,” he added. “That was proven.”
“I think it’s important to remind everybody that only winners make policy, losers go home,” McConnell said. “We’ve lost four or five seats in the last two cycles with candidates who regretfully simply couldn’t get elected in a general election contest.” The Senate Conservatives Fund has certainly endorsed some candidates who couldn’t win in states like Colorado, Delaware, and Indiana in recent years, but conservative activists point out that McConnell has made some pretty bad picks, too. In 2010, McConnell backed Trey Grayson over Rand Paul in the Kentucky primary. He also supported Florida governor Charlie Crist (now running again for governor, this time as a Democrat) over Marco Rubio.
Does McConnell regret supporting Crist and Grayson? He didn’t directly answer the question after being asked twice, but after the third attempt, he conceded: “I ended up being on the wrong side of the Kentucky primary in 2010. We all ended up being on the right side of the Florida primary before it was over. And obviously I’m proud of the fact that Rand Paul has become a friend and ally and supported me in my campaign.”
Conservative activists resent being blamed for Senate losses in states like Missouri and Indiana, while establishment Republicans never take the fall for their candidates who lost in deep-red states like North Dakota and Montana. “We didn’t do as well as we should have. There’s no question about that,” McConnell said, when asked about those losses. But he argued that failures in North Dakota and Montana weren’t like losses in states like Indiana because there wasn’t a competitive primary in which the establishment candidate beat an electable conservative challenger.
One of the biggest complaints against McConnell among his critics on the right is that Republicans spent too much money under President Bush, and if we keep the same team around we’ll just end up going back to old ways. Asked if GOP Congresses spent too much money in the Bush era, McConnell replied: “I think it’s time to quit relitigating the Bush years. The big spending, particularly the first the first two years of the Obama years, dwarfed anything that was done before that.” Asked at the end of the interview why he hasn’t agreed to debate his Republican primary challenger Matt Bevin, McConnell simply said: “I’m not interested in talking about the campaign.” McConnell said he's focused on conveying to voters that "we’re responsible adults who are here to govern if given the opportunity by the American people to actually set the agenda here in the Senate."
Update: This article originally reported that Trey Grayson "now heads up a Democratic super PAC." Grayson emails to say that he resigned in January 2013 from his role as co-chairman of Gabby Giffords's super PAC.