It is a month since the government shutdown and a day after the election. The minority leader of the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell, longest-serving senator in Kentucky history (1985 to the present, up for a sixth term in 2014), is seated in his office talking about the stresses, strains and estrangements that mark the relationship between what is called the tea party and what is called the GOP establishment, which at the moment seems to consist of everyone who isn’t in the tea party. Mr. McConnell is soft-spoken, contained, a person of habitual discretion. What seemed to be on his mind was something like “Star Wars: The Establishment Fights Back.” What he expressed was more like “The Establishment Voices Some Aggravation.”But it’s a start.
“The most important election yesterday wasn’t the governor of New Jersey and it wasn’t the governor of Virginia, it was the special election for Congress in South Alabama, where a candidate who said the shutdown was a great idea, the president was born in Kenya, and that he opposed Speaker Boehner came in second.” The victory of a more electable Republican, is significant, Mr. McConnell says. To govern, parties must win. To win, parties must “run candidates that don’t scare the general public, [and] convey the impression that we could actually be responsible for governing, you can trust us—we’re adults here, we’re grown-ups.”
Republicans must enter the 2014 election cycle remembering the advice of William F. Buckley : “He always said he was for the most conservative candidate who could win.”
Is the GOP in civil war? “No, I don’t think so.” Everyone agrees on the central issue: “We would all love to get rid of ObamaCare. If we had the votes to do it we’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s the single worst piece of legislation that’s been passed in modern times.”
But “we have a disability right now—it’s called in the Senate ’55 of them and 45 of us.’ I’m not great at math, but 55 is more than 45. . . . I think it’s irresponsible for some people to characterize themselves as sort of true conservatives, to mislead their followers into believing you can get an outcome that you can’t possibly get.”
The tea party, he says, consists of “people who are angry and upset at government—and I agree with them.” But “I think, honestly, many of them have been misled. . . . They’ve been told the reason we can’t get to better outcomes than we’ve gotten is not because the Democrats control the Senate and the White House but because Republicans have been insufficiently feisty. Well, that’s just not true, and I think that the folks that I have difficulty with are the leaders of some of these groups who basically mislead them for profit. . . . They raise money . . . take their cut and spend it” on political action that hurts Republicans.He refers to the Senate Conservatives Fund. “That’s the one I’m prepared to be specific about.” The fund “has elected more Democrats than the Democratic Senatorial Committee over the last three cycles.” The group is targeting Mr. McConnell with ads slamming his leadership during the shutdown. “Right now they’re on the air in obvious coordination with Harry Reid’s super PAC—Harry Reid’s!—in the same markets, at roughly the same amount, at the same time.”
But he says he isn’t worried about his own race: “I don’t wanna be overly cocky, but I’m gonna be the Republican nominee next year.”
Are members of the tea party on the ground being fooled by operators, profit makers and cynics? “Yes,” he said, followed by a brief silence. He declined to say more, but emphasized again that “I make a distinction between the leaders and the followers. I mean, I think a lot of well-meaning people are sending money to organizations having no idea they’re gonna spend all that money against Republicans. Because they’re being misled.”
During the government shutdown there was significant tension and discord among various Republicans on the Hill. Where does that fit in this story?
“It was a strategy that I said both publicly and privately could not work, and did not work.” The idea that a Democratic president and Senate might abandon their signature legislation was “a fantasy—in other words, it was not the truth.”
“All it succeeded in doing was taking attention off of ObamaCare for 16 days. And scaring the public and tanking our brand—our party brand. One of my favorite old Kentucky sayings is that there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. It ain’t gonna happen again.”
The lesson? “Learn from your mistakes, and realize that had we been talking ObamaCare during that 16 days, instead of people being consumed with the shutdown, we’d probably have a generic party ballot lead right now.”
ObamaCare itself is “a catastrophic failure. It’s a lot bigger than the website—sooner or later they’re gonna get the website fixed—but from a strictly political point of view,” the fallout for Democrats will be serious and long-lasting. “Not a single Republican voted for it, not one in the House or Senate. Every single Republican voted to defund it, to delay it, to get rid of it in any way.”
But is that enough? I suggested there is a void in the GOP reaction to ObamaCare. Wave one of the story was debut, website, failure. Wave two was “Oh my God, I just got my cancellation.” Wave three: “Oh my God, I wasn’t cancelled but they hiked my premiums.” All this is making millions of Americans anxious and resentful—they have a sense the president lied to them. How does the Republican Party right now step in to help? What can it offer people who are suffering from the dislocations?
“Yeah, well, I hate to keep repeating myself, but to have the kind of relief the country needs, I think we change the government. Change the Senate, change the presidency. To get relief between now and then will require wholesale [Senate] Democratic defections. And it’s going to be interesting to watch them running away from this. Just three weeks ago they were all in lockstep, voting against any effort to delay it or defund it or anything else. Now a number of them, particularly who happen to be running in red states in 2014, are saying ‘Whoops, maybe we ought to do this or do that.’ So if there’s a jailbreak on the other side, so that the president is put in an awkward position with his own members demanding adjustments, it could happen.”
But “a lot of Democrats would have to start to defect, in a big way, to force onto a reluctant president massive changes.” And “I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. I think what [Democrats] will do is sort of pick around the edges and try to put some distance between themselves and the implementation.”
Is Mr. MConnell going to them and saying, “Guys, it would be very helpful to the country if you would begin to defect”?
No. “I’m waiting for them to come to us, because that’s when you know you’ll have real leverage.”