Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mitch McConnell

After the GOP Wave

Some post-election thoughts in light of the GOPs tidal wave on Tuesday:

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Some post-election thoughts in light of the GOPs tidal wave on Tuesday:

1. The majority of Republicans have reacted to their victories in an impressive fashion. Their rhetoric is restrained, serious, and mature. They know that while they did extremely well in races at every level, they still have a ways to go to earn the trust and loyalty of most Americans (that’s more true of congressional Republicans than those who are governors). Republicans in the Senate and House are signaling a willingness to work with the president if he’s willing to show some flexibility. (The president’s apparent commitment to go forward with an unconstitutional executive amnesty order will be all the evidence we need that Mr. Obama is determined to further polarize our politics and rip apart our political culture.) Speaker Boehner and the next Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, have already put forward their to-do list; so have others. There’s evidence that Republicans–most of them, anyway–have internalized the need to show they’re more serious about putting forward a governing agenda and solving problems facing middle class Americans than “telegenic confrontations” and “volcanic effusions.”  The GOP’s detoxification effort is well under way.

2. What ought to encourage Republicans isn’t simply that their ranks have swollen, but the quality of many of the new arrivals, from Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse in the Senate to Elise Stefanik and Barbara Comstock in the House to many others. The GOP does best when it’s seen as the home of individuals with conservative principles and a governing temperament. A winsome personality doesn’t hurt, either.

3. The GOP’s victory was the result of many things, from President Obama’s unpopularity and the awful political environment Democrats faced to the superior quality of the Republican candidates, their disciplined, gaffe-free campaigns, successful fundraising, and the select intervention by various groups into Republican primaries (ensuring that the most electable conservative was nominated). But not to be overlooked is that Republicans did a much better job than in the past with their Get Out The Vote effort, including turnout of low-propensity voters. As National Journal’s Ron Fournier put it:

A review of the RNC’s targeting operation (including a preelection sample of specific projections) suggests to me that the GOP has made significant advances on targeting and mobilizing voters. While the Democratic Party may still own the best ground game, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus has narrowed, if not closed, the tech gap.

A few Democrats saw this coming. “Our side has underestimated the GOP ground game,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told me Tuesday morning. “Their electorate doesn’t look like ours, so we don’t recognize or respect what they’re doing.”

4. The most surprising outcome of the evening may have been how well Republicans did in governor’s races around the nation. They were predicted to lose several seats; instead, they made a net gain of three. Among the most impressive was Ohio’s John Kasich, who won by more than 30 points. He carried heavily Democratic counties like Lucas and Cuyahoga. In fact, in a key purple state, Kasich carried 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties and a quarter of the African-American vote. Mr. Kasich has amassed an impressive record as governor–and a popular one, too. He’s one of America’s most engaging and interesting politicians. If he wants to run for president in 2016, he certainly helped his cause on Tuesday.

5. There are plenty of reasons for Republicans to be buoyed. They have very impressive people, including people in their ’30s and ’40s, at every level. Of the two parties, the GOP seems to be the one of greater energy and ideas. The Democratic Party, and liberalism more broadly, seems stale, aging, and exhausted. And of course the GOP has now strung together massive, back-to-back midterm wins. But it’s still worth keeping in mind that Republicans had spectacular showings in 1994 and 2010–and they were defeated by rather large margins in the presidential races two years after those wins. The danger is that a victory like the one Republicans experienced on Tuesday creates a false dawn, a sense of false confidence. Winning midterms elections is important; but midterm elections are different than presidential elections. The GOP still has repair work to do and things to build on. But progress is being made–and the results of this week’s election are the best evidence of that fact.

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How Mitch McConnell Outsmarted Obama

Republicans–and some desperate Democrats who saw the writing on the wall–didn’t need anyone to tell them to make last night’s midterms about President Obama. His unpopularity was not in doubt, and his responsibility for manifold governmental failures over the last several years was undeniable. And yet, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell still deserves a large share of the credit for what may seem like an obvious anti-Obama election. How McConnell outsmarted the president and saved the Senate (at least temporarily) is one of the midterms’ more fascinating subplots.

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Republicans–and some desperate Democrats who saw the writing on the wall–didn’t need anyone to tell them to make last night’s midterms about President Obama. His unpopularity was not in doubt, and his responsibility for manifold governmental failures over the last several years was undeniable. And yet, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell still deserves a large share of the credit for what may seem like an obvious anti-Obama election. How McConnell outsmarted the president and saved the Senate (at least temporarily) is one of the midterms’ more fascinating subplots.

As Jonathan Tobin mentioned late last night, McConnell belongs at the top of the list of winners, while Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid is second only to Obama in the losers column. Yet the efforts of both men to bring about that result are still widely–and in some cases, probably purposely–misunderstood. A perfect distillation of how to get the McConnell strategy exactly wrong comes via Vox, unsurprisingly. There, Matt Yglesias sums up the Democratic spin on how the Senate has been run by both Reid and McConnell. The spin is unambiguously false, but it does show the extent to which Reid’s mendacious propaganda actually convinced many liberals who don’t grasp the granular details of the Senate. Here’s Yglesias:

A Republican comeback of this scale was by no means guaranteed. In the winter of 2008-2009, the leaders of the Obama transition effort had a theory as to how things would go and mainstream Washington agreed with them.

The theory went like this. With large majorities in the House and Senate, it was obvious that lots of Democratic bills would pass. But the White House would be generous and make concessions to Republicans who were willing to leap on the bandwagon. Consequently, incumbent Republicans from states Obama won (Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana, Nevada) would be eager to cut deals in which they backed Obama bills in exchange for key concessions. With that process under way, many Republicans who weren’t even that vulnerable would be eager to cut deals as well, in search of a piece of the action. As a result, bills would pass the Senate with large 70- to 75-vote majorities, and Obama would be seen as the game-changing president who healed American politics and got things done.

McConnell’s counter plan was to prevent those deals. As McConnell told Josh Green, the key to eroding Obama’s popularity was denying him the sheen of bipartisanship, and that meant keep Republicans united in opposition[.]

Yglesias then quotes McConnell as saying “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” and adds himself:

To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked. Six years into the affair, we now take it for granted that nothing will pass on a bipartisan basis, no appointment will go through smoothly, and everything the administration tries to get done will take the form of a controversial use of executive power.

It’s quite possible Yglesias actually believes this. Many on the left have been thoroughly confused by how the Senate works, and they are almost always eager to believe the most negative portrayal of Republicans out there. But rather than Obama being generously and genuinely bipartisan, what happened was that he took his election to be a mandate for his own plans–“I won,” as he famously said.

And so the Obama strategy, with Reid’s help in the Senate, was to get what Yglesias calls the “sheen” of bipartisanship: get a very liberal bill that consists mostly of handouts to liberal interest groups and greatly increases presidential power on an issue, and pretend it’s the work of both parties by offering token, vote-buying concessions to convince a few Republicans to put their names on the overall bill. McConnell wasn’t buying it, because he understood that Obama had no intention of actually crafting bills that would prominently feature conservative ideas–the two sides were too far apart anyway.

McConnell also understood that Obama’s ideas were terrible, and would be unpopular. In some cases, we knew the bills were unpopular before they even went up for vote. Obama wanted an insurance policy (no ObamaCare pun intended): to have his name on the “achievement” if it turned out to be popular but to have Republicans own its passage in case it wasn’t. It was cynical and dishonest, and it didn’t succeed because Obama fooled his fans in the media but not McConnell.

Additionally, as anyone who follows the Senate closely knows, Reid’s strategy was to put unprecedented limits on the minority (Republicans) in the legislating process. Republicans were shut out of the traditional bipartisan role and also shut out of the amendment process. Reid didn’t want Republican input at all and didn’t want debate either. The plain fact is that it was Reid who “decided to break” the Senate, since Republicans weren’t willing to simply add their names to Obama’s legislative wish lists. And in order to protect constitutionally suspect legislation in the courts, Reid tossed out the filibuster as well.

Last night was a resounding victory for McConnell not because he sabotaged the Senate but because it confirmed what he already knew: Obama’s ideas are naïve and destructive, and therefore unpopular. McConnell’s refusal to allow his GOP minority caucus to be a rubber stamp for the disastrous liberal agenda was what stopped the midterms from being a pox on both houses and instead a referendum on those responsible for the wreckage: the Democrats.

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Iran Appeasement at Stake in Midterms

American elections are always closely watched by foreign nations. But there may no more interested observers of tonight’s midterm results than the leaders of Iran. The ability of the Obama administration to pursue détente with Iran and to cut a new weak deal that will enable the Islamist regime to become a nuclear threshold state may rest on the ability of President Obama’s party to hold onto control of the Senate.

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American elections are always closely watched by foreign nations. But there may no more interested observers of tonight’s midterm results than the leaders of Iran. The ability of the Obama administration to pursue détente with Iran and to cut a new weak deal that will enable the Islamist regime to become a nuclear threshold state may rest on the ability of President Obama’s party to hold onto control of the Senate.

The administration’s zeal for a deal with the Iranians appears undiminished by Tehran’s decision to continue to impede the efforts of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to discover what is going on at their nuclear plants. As the Wall Street Journal reported last Friday, the IAEA has made public the fact that there has been no progress made in getting access for inspections despite a year of negotiations. The Iranians are, as is their wont, continuing to run out the clock on the West on those talks. At the same time they are stringing the U.S. along in its efforts to broker a deal despite reports of far-reaching concessions that would allow it to keep their nuclear infrastructure in any agreement.

Given the growing sentiment in Europe for ending economic sanctions on Iran, there is no guarantee that watering down the terms of an agreement even more will entice the Islamists to sign a deal ending the standoff. Yet given the administration’s signals about treating this issue as their top foreign-policy priority, it seems likely that Obama will get some kind of an accord that will enable him to say he has addressed the world’s concerns about the nuclear threat from Iran even if it does little to diminish that threat.

Obama’s ability to do as he likes on Iran stems in no small measure from the president’s ability to get the Democratic majority in the Senate—and in particular, Majority Leader Harry Reid—to do his bidding on the issue. Though a bipartisan proposal for toughening sanctions on Iran if the talks failed had overwhelming support in the Senate last winter, including the vocal advocacy of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez, Reid was able to spike the effort. If, as the administration has indicated, it will seek to bypass congressional approval for any new Iran deal, the president knows he can count on Reid to perform the same service this year despite complaints from fellow Democrat Menendez. But with the GOP in control of the Senate, the administration will have a lot less leeway in their pursuit of appeasement.

If a deal is signed, the president and his cheering section in the media will, no doubt, go all out to label any skeptics of the agreement as warmongers in much the same manner as they did last year. In order to end sanctions on Iran, a key requirement for Tehran in any accord, the president will suspend enforcement of the laws. But getting rid of them will require congressional action that is unlikely to occur. More to the point, Congress will have an opportunity to respond to an end run around the Constitution that requires Senate approval of all treaties with new sanctions on Iran.

Interestingly, the International Business Times speculates today that a switch in control of the Foreign Relations Committee could work to Obama’s advantage. If, as expected, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker replaces Menendez and Democrat Dick Durbin becomes the ranking member instead of Republican Mark Kirk, the IBT thinks this pair is more likely to do Obama’s bidding on Iran than the current team.

But that underestimates support throughout the Senate and on the committee for tougher sanctions on Iran. More to the point, the “sanctions mongers,” as the IBT refers to opponents of Iran appeasement, will likely have the backing of the putative Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. With or without a new weak deal with Iran, the odds are, Republicans in both the House and the Senate will pass a bill similar to the one proposed by Menendez and Kirk last year which sought to hold the president’s feet to the fire on Iran.

Those who think a GOP-run Senate will back Obama’s play on Iran are underestimating the skepticism about the president’s policy in Congress as well as the deep concern for Israel’s security in the GOP at a time when, as Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic column illustrated last week, the administration’s is seeking to chill relations with the Jewish state.

That’s why it won’t be just U.S. political junkies staying up tonight to see if Reid or McConnell is running the Senate next year. The ayatollahs understand their ability to manipulate a U.S. government that they have pegged as a weak negotiating partner may be dependent on the outcome.

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Midterm Sour Grapes, Tea Party Edition

Democrats aren’t the only ones feeling gloomy today. Despite the likelihood that the Republican Party will retake the Senate and increase its majority in the House, some Tea Party conservatives look around the country at the GOP’s roster of candidates and say they’ve been cheated. Rather than win by nominating hard-core right-wingers wherever possible, the party has, instead, put forward a more mainstream electoral cast including many that have been labeled, whether fairly or unfairly, as establishment types. That leads people like Erick Erickson to label today’s results a “hollow victory” in a Politico Magazine article. But while many Tea Partiers may share some of his frustration about the GOP establishment, they should reject his reflexive disgust and embrace this opportunity to not only act as a break on the Obama administration’s liberal agenda but to actually govern.

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Democrats aren’t the only ones feeling gloomy today. Despite the likelihood that the Republican Party will retake the Senate and increase its majority in the House, some Tea Party conservatives look around the country at the GOP’s roster of candidates and say they’ve been cheated. Rather than win by nominating hard-core right-wingers wherever possible, the party has, instead, put forward a more mainstream electoral cast including many that have been labeled, whether fairly or unfairly, as establishment types. That leads people like Erick Erickson to label today’s results a “hollow victory” in a Politico Magazine article. But while many Tea Partiers may share some of his frustration about the GOP establishment, they should reject his reflexive disgust and embrace this opportunity to not only act as a break on the Obama administration’s liberal agenda but to actually govern.

Let’s concede that Erickson and other Tea Partiers are not crazy to be suspicious about the Republican leadership. They remember what happened the last time the GOP had control of both houses of Congress. The reason there is a Tea Party movement is due to the fact that during the George W. Bush administration, the party was rightly perceived to have embraced a tax-and-spend mentality that helped dig the country a hole that it has not yet climbed out of. The pointless discussions about who is a RINO (Republican in name only) inevitably descend into tests of purity whose aim is to demonstrate which conservatives are holier than anyone else. Yet the question of who is a big-government Republican is a serious one that should influence the new freshman class of Senators and Representatives to avoid the mistakes made during the reign of error presided over by former Speaker Denny Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom Delay.

But Erickson’s animus seems not to be so much focused on whether the next Republican majority will avoid the temptations of big government and resume spending like drunken sailors as it is on those that sought to avoid the kind of disasters that cost the party golden opportunities to win the Senate in 2010 and 2012. Erickson is still angry with national Republican political consultants such as Karl Rove and people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who worked hard to recruit Senate candidates based on whether they could win rather than on their conservative purity. The result was that Tea Party insurgents in states like Kansas and Mississippi were defeated and establishment Republicans won.

Not all of these decisions were wise. Certainly, the GOP must look back at the effort to ensure that Pat Roberts was given the party’s Senate nomination rather than a Tea Party rebel with some mixed feelings. Roberts is the poster child for out-of-touch incumbents who richly deserve to be retired rather than given a ticket for another six years in Washington. If Roberts loses his Kansas seat today—especially if the GOP falls one seat short of a majority—Tea Partiers will never let the establishment live that one down. Conservatives also still have hard feelings over the way the party leadership went all-out to save incumbent Thad Cochran in Mississippi even though he is another senator that grew roots in D.C. and replacing him as a nominee would not have cost the party the seat.

Erickson also takes a shot at Thom Tillis in North Carolina and David Perdue in Georgia. Both are not incumbents but still represent an establishment mentality that provides voters with unattractive choices rather than a fresh and principled conservative alternative.

This critique is consistent with the theme we’ve heard from many conservatives about the pitfalls of Republicans nominating so-called moderates for president like John McCain or Mitt Romney. This thesis holds that the party alienates its base and creates millions of missing Republican voters by putting forward certain losers without the passion of true conservatives. To that indictment, Erickson adds that this is largely the fault of consultants who profit handsomely from such losses.

There is something to be said for the argument that merely nominating respectable losers does nothing to advance the conservative cause or to stop the growth of the big-government monster that is devouring the U.S. economy and stealing more of our individual freedom every year. But the idea that the only choice before the GOP is between nominating fat cat losers and principled conservative winners is, like the straw men that President Obama likes to use as his favorite rhetorical device, a false choice. What Republicans need is not so much Tea Party fervor as it is political skill.

What Hastert and the K Street caucus that profited from past Republican majorities taught us is that Republicans need to be about more than just attempts to buy votes with government pork. But in 2010 and 2012, the right also taught it that putting forward candidates who can’t win the support of a majority of voters isn’t too smart either. Without the Tea Party insisting on nominating Sharron Angle for a Nevada race, Harry Reid would have been defeated in 2010. Nor should anyone on the right forget that putting forward Christine O’Donnell rather than a respectable GOP moderate ensured that the Democrats would win a seat in Delaware that they are likely to hold for a long time. The disdain for national leaders attempting to vet Senate candidates also seems absurd given what happened in Missouri when Rep. Todd Akin (an extreme social conservative rather than a Tea Partier) not only threw away a certain defeat of Democrat Claire McCaskill but also tarnished the Republican brand around the nation with his idiotic comments about rape and pregnancy.

These lessons should be remembered even when we look at what seem like reasonable criticisms of the establishment by Erickson. While re-nominating Roberts and even Cochran may be classified as unforced errors, what he’s leaving out of the discussion is the very real possibility that loose cannons such as Milton Wolf and Chris McDaniel might have sunk the party. In particular, it can be argued that keeping McDaniel, a former radio talker with a paper trail of wild comments a mile long, out of the general election might have been the smartest thing the GOP did all year since he might have been the 2014 version of Akin.

The question of what Republicans do with their majority if they win it is something we’ll find out in 2015. But you can’t govern without winning elections and that is something the Tea Party hasn’t always mastered. Too often, some of them seem more interested in fighting and destroying their slightly less conservative party opponents than in beating Democrats and then governing. Sour grapes from Tea Partiers about “hollow victories” strikes me as being just as absurd as the excuses already put forward by Democrats about why they are losing this election. If Rove, McConnell, and Co. have stopped them from blowing up another chance for a Republican majority, that is something that even the most dedicated conservatives should be celebrating tonight.

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Alison Grimes Can’t Hide From Obama

It is to be hoped that by the end of the day, Alison Lundergan Grimes will have, with the help of her political consultants, come up with a coherent answer to the question of whether she voted for Barack Obama for president in 2012. This evening’s debate with Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell is probably the last chance for the Democrat to end the jokes about her going mum about her vote and save what’s left of her chances to win a Kentucky Senate seat next month. But even if we set aside the justified criticisms of Grimes’s foolishness, the flap over this issue illustrates how the president’s boast about his policies being on the ballot in 2014 is very much to the point.

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It is to be hoped that by the end of the day, Alison Lundergan Grimes will have, with the help of her political consultants, come up with a coherent answer to the question of whether she voted for Barack Obama for president in 2012. This evening’s debate with Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell is probably the last chance for the Democrat to end the jokes about her going mum about her vote and save what’s left of her chances to win a Kentucky Senate seat next month. But even if we set aside the justified criticisms of Grimes’s foolishness, the flap over this issue illustrates how the president’s boast about his policies being on the ballot in 2014 is very much to the point.

Grimes raised eyebrows when she ignored a reporter’s question about whether she voted for the head of her party in 2012 a couple of weeks ago. But when she doggedly refused to answer the same simple question during a taped meeting with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal, even liberals were left scratching their heads. It may be hyperbole to dub her efforts as “The Worst Senate Campaign of the Year,” as the New Republic did in their headline of a report about her, but it’s fair to say that she must be considered the biggest disappointment for Democrats.

As TNR’s Jason Zengerle put it, for a woman who was an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2012 to talk about “the sanctity of the ballot box” when asked if she backed the president showed that she thought “voters were idiots.” While Zengerle wouldn’t go as far as NBC’s Chuck Todd, who said the answer “disqualified her” for the Senate, it’s clear that the enormous funds that Democratic donors from both coasts have poured into the effort to unseat the GOP minority leader have been wasted.

Zengerle puts most of the blame for this debacle on Grimes and her father, veteran politician Jerry Lundergan, who has been calling the shots on his daughter’s campaign. Having convinced themselves that McConnell would use anything she said, even the obvious observation that a Democrat voted for her party’s ticket, as fodder for attack ads, the candidate has spent the last year and a half in a “defensive crouch.” While Democratic operatives, including Bill Clinton, touted Grimes as a talented politician with a future when they were doing their best to steer actress Ashley Judd away from a possible run for the Kentucky seat last year, she hasn’t lived up to the billing.

The result of her caution is that she has come across to voters as being almost as unlikeable as the notoriously unpopular McConnell. Indeed, right now some Kentucky Democrats might be wondering if they made a mistake in rejecting Judd. McConnell would have skewered her as a “Hollywood liberal” but she would also have been less obviously scripted, more authentic, as well as more likeable than Grimes.

Nevertheless, some of the backbiting on the left about Grimes seems to stem from the natural instinct of both parties’ bases to criticize candidates that stray from their ideological biases. Grimes has tried, albeit with minimal success to run as a centrist, something for which liberals will never forgive her if she loses in the same way conservatives despise moderate Republicans.

But the focus on Grimes ignores the main problem Democrats are dealing with this fall: Barack Obama.

Two weeks ago, the president boasted that while his name wasn’t on the ballot this fall, his policies were. That was a terrible political error but also a truthful assessment of the situation. Though local issues and the strengths and weakness of Senate candidates are crucial factors in determining the outcome of the midterms, the one unifying theme of this election remains the record of the incumbent president. With growing chaos abroad, economic stagnation, and a myriad of scandals at home, the country is ready to give the president a vote of no confidence after six years. While it is disingenuous of someone like Grimes to pretend that she can avoid being tagged as an Obama supporter, there is good reason for her to fear being identified as someone who will loyally back the president’s agenda should she help the Democrats hold onto the Senate.

The problem for Grimes is the same for every other Democrat not running in a deep-blue state. She can run but she can’t hide from the president. Just as the messianic hopes that Obama engendered helped his party in 2008, dissatisfaction with a failed presidency is bound to doom many Democrats in 2014 whether or not they run terrible campaigns.

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Harry Reid: Still Crazy-Like-A-Fox After All These Years

There’s an old Jewish joke about Yom Kippur. The shul rabbi, overcome by the need for forgiveness, kneels to the floor and shouts “God, before you I am nothing!” Moved by the scene, the cantor drops to his knees, looks heavenward, and repeats the rabbi’s plea: “God, before you I am nothing!” At that point the synagogue’s shamash, the Jewish caretaker of the building, repeats the spectacle, dropping to his knees, looking at the sky, and exclaiming “God, before you I am nothing!” The cantor nudges the rabbi, motions toward the shamash, and whispers “So look who thinks he’s nothing!”

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There’s an old Jewish joke about Yom Kippur. The shul rabbi, overcome by the need for forgiveness, kneels to the floor and shouts “God, before you I am nothing!” Moved by the scene, the cantor drops to his knees, looks heavenward, and repeats the rabbi’s plea: “God, before you I am nothing!” At that point the synagogue’s shamash, the Jewish caretaker of the building, repeats the spectacle, dropping to his knees, looking at the sky, and exclaiming “God, before you I am nothing!” The cantor nudges the rabbi, motions toward the shamash, and whispers “So look who thinks he’s nothing!”

A couple of recent stories about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brought this joke to mind. First, in mid-September, Politico published a story in which Reid was unusually frank about just how pleased he was with himself. He actually wanted–six weeks out from the election–to begin bragging, like a kid who can’t believe how many fireflies he caught in a single jar, that Republicans had begun making “fire Reid” an election-year mantra:

“I’m meaningless,” Reid, a three-decade Hill veteran and the most powerful Democrat in Congress, told POLITICO Thursday. “People in red states don’t even know who I am.”

So look who thinks he’s nothing! But he’s also right, in an important way. Harry Reid has never achieved the kind of name identification that makes him a strategically sound national target, and he knew it. If Republicans are talking about him, instead of, say, President Obama or actual policies, then he’s done his job.

And today’s story in The Hill on Senate Republicans’ grumbling over leadership concerns raises a similar point, only it reveals that Reid has inspired finger pointing among Republicans even though they have the momentum heading into the home stretch of the midterm campaign.

And reading The Hill’s story, it’s easy to feel some pity for the anonymous GOP senator on whom much of the story is based. The senator has basically had the political equivalent of his shoelaces tied together, and since he’s unnamed we can’t even warn him of the imminent meeting between his face and the Senate chamber floor. And the only sound louder than the impending thud will be bellowing laughter of Harry Reid.

Here’s The Hill setting the scene:

If Republicans fall short of expectations this fall, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) could face a leadership challenge.

Republican senators say there is much riding on the Nov. 4 elections for McConnell, who is gunning to become majority leader while also attempting to defeat a well-funded Democratic opponent.

“If we don’t win the majority then all bets are off,” one GOP senator told The Hill when asked whether McConnell could face a leadership race if Republicans remained in the minority in 2015.

The senator, who requested anonymity, said some members of the Senate Republican Conference would call for a re-evaluation of McConnell’s tactics, which the lawmaker described as maintaining total party unity in opposition to the Democratic agenda.

The very next paragraph, however, explains the absurdity of the complaint:

The senator acknowledged that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is difficult to work with because he has severely limited the ability of Republicans to offer amendments.

“There’s no question Harry Reid is very tough to deal with, but some of us wonder whether we should have tried to go around him to work with other Democrats,” the senator said.

Conservative critics, on the other hand, argue that McConnell has been too accommodating and has not been fierce enough in waging the battle to repeal ObamaCare or slash federal spending.

Here’s what happened: Harry Reid set a trap, and some Senate Republicans are falling for it. That’s really the crux of the plot here. Between Reid’s reduction of the applicability of the filibuster and his obliteration of Senate norms intended to give the minority some limited role in the democratic process, Reid has made it impossible for Republicans to get what they want and nearly impossible for them to stop Democrats from getting what they want.

Is that unfair? Sure, but welcome to the NFL, kid.

The genius of Reid’s shenanigans is that they only feed the conservative narrative that the Republican leadership is out of step with the party’s grassroots. With midterm elections approaching in which Republicans may actually have a decent shot at reclaiming the upper chamber, this is Reid’s best chance to divide and conquer the Republican caucus so the infighting holds the party back from training all its fire on the other side. Republicans who fall for this–and there appear to be several–are getting played.

And while I don’t know who the anonymous senator is, this strikes me as the kind of mistake common for inexperienced legislators. It reads like a hazing ritual of the Senate, and Reid is taking particular delight in it. Conservatives who truly want to advance a conservative agenda in Congress ought to stop stepping on the rake.

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McConnell: Obstructionist or a Dealmaker?

Politico made quite a stir last week when it published an interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in which he suggested that his main priority if Republicans win a majority this November will be to stop President Obama from governing without consent of Congress. McConnell’s talk about challenging the White House through the “funding process” struck some observers as reminiscent of Tea Party rhetoric that led to last year’s disastrous government shutdown and give the senator’s Democratic challenger a new talking point in a tough reelection race. But, as a profile of McConnell in the New York Times Magazine to be published next Sunday shows, a GOP-run Senate may actually be one where bipartisan deals are possible.

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Politico made quite a stir last week when it published an interview with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in which he suggested that his main priority if Republicans win a majority this November will be to stop President Obama from governing without consent of Congress. McConnell’s talk about challenging the White House through the “funding process” struck some observers as reminiscent of Tea Party rhetoric that led to last year’s disastrous government shutdown and give the senator’s Democratic challenger a new talking point in a tough reelection race. But, as a profile of McConnell in the New York Times Magazine to be published next Sunday shows, a GOP-run Senate may actually be one where bipartisan deals are possible.

The Politico interview brought out the fact that McConnell’s focus in his reelection race is on fighting President Obama. The only person in Kentucky who seems to have lower favorability ratings than McConnell is the president and the minority leader has rightly determined to run against him and concentrate on linking opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes to the White House.

However, McConnell’s plans to stymie the president’s plans to spend his last years in power trying to govern on his own via executive orders or sleight of hand maneuvers, like his attempt to sign a climate change treaty without bringing it to the Senate for a vote, were interpreted (not without some justice) as a not-so-veiled threat of another government shutdown. If so, that gave Grimes more ammunition to pursue her campaign strategy painting the personally unpopular McConnell as the epitome of everything voters hate about Washington.

That sounds like a winning strategy for Grimes who has been virtually tied in the polls with McConnell for most of the year. But Grimes, whose momentum seems to have slowed recently as polls show McConnell building on his slim lead, may not necessarily profit from positioning herself as Obama’s defender in future confrontations with the GOP. That’s especially true since many of the issues on which Republicans will confront Obama’s government by executive order policy will be on environmental issues.

Grimes’s biggest burden in this race, aside, that is, from McConnell’s legendary political skills and scorched earth tactics against opponents, are Obama’s anti-coal environmental policies. If McConnell can portray his boasts of obstructionism as merely the only way to protect one of his state’s industries, that would be a huge handicap for the Democrat.

Even more interestingly, the New York Times profile seemed to undermine any notion of McConnell as a Tea Party warrior bent on confrontation. As the profile makes clear, McConnell is at his core a moderate who is more interested in governance and political tactics than in grand gestures or shutting down the government to make an ideological point. As anyone who has followed events on Capitol Hill in recent years closely knows, of all the party leaders in either body, McConnell is a dealmaker who enjoys striking bargains for their own sake. That’s why a real Tea Partier—Matt Bevin—thought him vulnerable to a primary challenge that eventually fizzled. McConnell’s elevation to majority leader next year in the event of a GOP takeover would actually probably improve the chances of bipartisanship in a Senate where relations between the parties have been at an all-time low due to Reid’s highly confrontational tactics.

As Jonathan Martin writes in the Times Magazine, McConnell’s lack of personal appeal seemingly makes him a ripe target for defeat. But so long as Grimes is linked to Obama, even talk about government shutdowns may not be enough to end McConnell’s tenure in the Senate. As Martin writes in his concluding paragraph:

In the end, however, it seemed as though McConnell had found a way to make the race about Obama rather than himself. Somehow, he had yet again become the outsider. Maybe the guy still had it.

Indeed, he does.

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Is Hillary Rooting for a GOP Senate?

For Democrats looking for some early consolation heading into a midterm election in which their party seems fated to suffer the loss of the Senate, the New York Times provides some comfort. A piece by John Harwood in today’s paper claims that while a Republican Senate would blight the last two years of the Obama presidency, it might well guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But while there is a superficial logic to his thesis the notion that the former secretary of state should be rooting for Mitch McConnell to become majority leader next January is a bit of a stretch.

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For Democrats looking for some early consolation heading into a midterm election in which their party seems fated to suffer the loss of the Senate, the New York Times provides some comfort. A piece by John Harwood in today’s paper claims that while a Republican Senate would blight the last two years of the Obama presidency, it might well guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But while there is a superficial logic to his thesis the notion that the former secretary of state should be rooting for Mitch McConnell to become majority leader next January is a bit of a stretch.

The argument that a Republican Senate would help Clinton’s presidential hopes is simple. If the GOP controls both the House and the Senate heading into the 2016 election, that will make it even easier for Democrats to run against what they will undoubtedly label a “do-nothing” or “obstructionist” Congress. The confrontations between the Republicans and the White House would escalate in 2015 with the president seeking to govern on his own via executive orders. At the same time, as Politico notes in an interesting preview of 2015, McConnell is planning a series of actions meant to stymie Obama’s attempts to circumvent constitutional checks and balances that could lead to a veto battle and Republicans daring Obama to shut down the government in order to force them to fund his pet projects. These struggles will feed into the media’s favorite meme about dysfunctional government in which both parties will, not without some justification, be damned as part of the problem rather than the solution.

But the notion Harwood advances that this will allow Clinton to present herself as an outside-the-Beltway figure who is not tied to this fracas is hard to swallow.

The longer an unpopular president and his more-unpopular partisan adversaries battle to a standstill, the easier it is to offer herself as a fresh start.

“It would be bad for the country,” said Stanley B. Greenberg, President Bill Clinton’s former pollster, but “total gridlock would allow Hillary to be the change.”

Mrs. Clinton has had as many political personality changes as she’s had hairdos in her decades in the public eye, but the idea that this grizzled veteran of Washington could present herself as “the change” that voters want is laughable.

Clinton’s in a strong position to win the presidency no matter what happens in November 2014. As the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, unless a credible left-wing alternative emerges to force her to abandon her criticisms of Obama’s foreign-policy failures, she has already begun the pivot to the center that most candidates can’t attempt until after they’ve won their party’s nod. More than that, as the potential first woman to be elected to the presidency, she has a compelling narrative as well as the loyalty of most party activists even if they are to her left on many issues. And with so many Republicans defending Senate seats in 2016 as the class of 2010 seeks reelection, Democrats will, with the help of their traditionally large presidential-year turnouts, have a chance to take the Senate back.

But after hanging around the capital in one guise or another and engaging in some of the nastiest gutter fights there for more than 20 years, Clinton can’t pretend to be a breath of fresh air in hyper-partisan Washington. Nor, after serving as secretary of state for four years, can she completely evade the tag of running for a third term for the Obama administration.

Just as important, if, as is likely, the next two years are marked by more bitter partisan warfare, the likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 won’t be able to stand aloof from Obama’s struggles with Congress. While the GOP House and Senate will undoubtedly make for attractive targets for Clinton’s scorn, that will tie her even more closely to Obama’s autocratic governing style rather than allowing her to distance herself from his troubled presidency. Republicans will be able to point out that Clinton’s own positions on the environment and immigration will make her just as likely to try to override the will of Congress as Obama has been.

As Harwood points out, President Obama will likely see a Clinton victory as the best chance to solidify his legacy. So will the voters. Moreover, Clinton’s opponent in 2016 won’t be McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner, much though she would love to run against either of them. In contrast to Clinton, the Republican nominee may turn out to be someone who actually is from outside the Beltway or one of those members of the Senate who are seeking to stop the business-as-usual approach to politics that Clinton embodies.

It may be that Clinton’s strengths will enable her to overcome the handicap of being tied to an unpopular and unsuccessful incumbent. But a Republican Senate won’t make that any easier. The loss of the Senate will be a body blow to liberal plans to expand government even more than Obama has already done. Doing so may not stop Clinton from winning in 2016, but it won’t make it any easier for her either.

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Obama Is Killing Dems’ Senate Hopes

Heading into the 2014 campaign, most analysts agreed that control of the U.S. Senate hinged on the survival of a few key red state Democrats and the one vulnerable Republican incumbent: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But the latest poll out of Kentucky provides some very bad news for Democrats for which they can blame one person: Barack Obama.

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Heading into the 2014 campaign, most analysts agreed that control of the U.S. Senate hinged on the survival of a few key red state Democrats and the one vulnerable Republican incumbent: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But the latest poll out of Kentucky provides some very bad news for Democrats for which they can blame one person: Barack Obama.

The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling issued the first survey of the contest between McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes published in the last month. It shows the GOP leader with a 5-point lead. That still leaves Grimes within reach of the Republican. But it also represents a gain for McConnell over previous polls issued over the summer. That’s a disappointing result for Grimes after what supporters saw as a strong launch to her campaign as anti-McConnell broadsides began to fill the airwaves in the Bluegrass State. Just at the moment when she might have been expected to eliminate the razor-thin lead McConnell has been nursing throughout the year, it appears the Democrat is starting to lose ground.

That has to be particularly frustrating for Grimes and the Democrats because the secondary polling data still shows McConnell to be extremely vulnerable. The same poll shows McConnell to have a 54-37 negative favorability rating, the kind of figures that normally spell doom for any incumbent. But though Grimes is a relatively fresh face with a good political pedigree, she isn’t particularly well liked either. Her 45-41 negative favorability isn’t as bad as McConnell’s but it shows that despite the hype about her in the liberal mainstream media, she hasn’t favorably impressed Kentuckians. Though there is still plenty of time for her to recover and overtake McConnell, skepticism is growing even on the left that this is possible.

These numbers show that even liberal prognosticators are starting to write Grimes off. Statistical guru and 2012 presidential election pundit superstar Nate Silver had already rated McConnell’s chances of winning reelection at 80 percent last week. That’s bound to go up even higher now. The New York Times Upshot blog (which replaced Silver’s “Five Thirty-Eight” when he went independent updated their prediction today about Kentucky to an 85 percent chance of a McConnell victory.

That means the Democrats’ margin for error in holding onto their Senate majority may now be so small as to make it highly unlikely that they can prevail in November. Silver rates the GOP as having a 60 percent chance of running the Senate next year. Upshot rates it at 55 percent.

The explanation for this trend isn’t hard to discern. Everyone seems to agree that unlike 2010, this year’s midterms won’t be a “wave” election in which a tidal wave of support for one party will lift all boats and create a landslide. But with the one vulnerable GOP senator looking like a likely winner and a number of red state Democrats fighting for their lives the Republicans don’t need a wave. All they do need is to remind voters in GOP-leaning states which candidates are supportive of President Obama. After all, the only person more unpopular in Kentucky than McConnell is the president. Obama has a staggering 63-32 percent negative approval rating there.

Republicans may have counted on anger about ObamaCare or some of the administration’s other scandals to lift them to a nationwide victory. That hasn’t quite materialized but general dissatisfaction with the president looks to be sufficient to drag Democrats down in red states and keep even McConnell safe. With the world in chaos and the president showing no leadership abroad and only a desire to whip up partisan anger at home, there is little reason to believe that Democrats can reverse historic trends that show the incumbent party losing big in a second term midterm. While Grimes will be blamed if she fails to take down one of the least liked (though most effective) members of the Senate, rather than focusing on her shortcomings and lack of preparation for the big stage, Democrats would do better to realize that Obama has gone from being their greatest asset to their biggest problem.

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Smash the Regulatory State from Within

The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

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The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

With all the talk of reform conservatism, this is a more limited variant of the ambitious reform efforts gaining momentum. There are two categories of such reform, and the abuse-of-power scandals proliferating throughout the Obama administration’s bureaucratic power agencies make it all the more necessary to realize the opportunity they present to conservatives seeking to protect the public from big government.

The first has to do with regulations, and Texas presents a good example. Because so much of the Obama-era Democratic regulations are poorly thought-out and destructive, it’s easy to get the impression that when the government regulates something, it will do so in a deeply stupid way. But it doesn’t have to.

In April 2010, the Washington Post ran an interesting article investigating the following question: Why did Texas escape the real-estate bust? As the Post explained:

Texas’s 3.1 million mortgage borrowers are a breed of their own among big states with big cities. Fewer than 6 percent of them are in or near foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association; the national average is nearly 10 percent. …

Texan subprime borrowers do especially well compared with their counterparts elsewhere. The foreclosure rate among subprime borrowers in Texas, at less than 19 percent, is the lowest of any state except Alaska.

Part of the answer seemed to be restrictions on refinancing and home-equity lending:

A cash-out refinance is a mortgage taken out for a higher balance than the one on an existing loan, net of fees. Across the nation, cash-outs became ubiquitous during the mortgage boom, as skyrocketing house prices made it possible for homeowners, even those with bad credit, to use their home equity like an ATM. But not in Texas. There, cash-outs and home-equity loans cannot total more than 80 percent of a home’s appraised value. There’s a 12-day cooling-off period after an application, during which the borrower can pull out. And when a borrower refinances a mortgage, it’s illegal to get even a dollar back. Texas really means it: All these protections, and more, are in the state constitution. The Texas restrictions on mortgage borrowing date from the first days of statehood in 1845, when the constitution banned home loans.

It turns out such restrictions went a long way toward preventing homeowners from taking out the kind of loans and refinancing that increased the chances of default when the bubble burst, protecting many in Texas from suffering the same fate. It’s the kind of “smart” regulation that not only benefits the private sector but also can prevent future “dumb” regulations: the less prone to such crises states (and especially the federal government) are, the less demand there will be for the kind of “do-something” regulatory pile-ons and bailouts that follow those crises.

Texas is also, of course, a testament to the benefits of limited regulations in other areas of ownership and private property. Another part of the state’s insulation from the real-estate bubble was, as Wendell Cox explained, “the state’s liberal, market oriented land use policies. This served to help keep the price of land low while profligate lending increased demand.” Overregulated housing markets inflated prices and restricted supply. Texas got the balance just right.

So there’s “smart” regulations vs. “dumb” regulations. But the other category of this kind of reform has to do with the bureaucracy. Especially in the Obama era, policy is being made more and more by unelected bureaucrats. As the IRS scandal (and others) showed, the power and insulation from the public eye is a dangerous combination.

Conservatives have generally approached this by concentrating on the need to eliminate either bureaucratic agencies or the powers of those agencies. They should also, however, keep in mind that as long as those agencies exist, personnel is policy. Perhaps no one on the right has internalized this message more than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In a piece for National Review last year (still paywalled, alas), Daniel Foster wrote about McConnell’s attitude toward staffing decisions made by each party. When bureaucratic commission openings must be filled, it generally falls to the leadership. That means President Obama for the Democrats and McConnell for the Republicans. The Democrats still tend to view such job appointments as patronage positions. But McConnell has rejected the cronyism in favor of competence:

To translate his instincts into names, he brought in GOP veteran Dan Schneider. To look at Schneider’s government rap sheet — stints at the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Labor Department — you’d think he was a die-cast liberal. But when I spoke with him for this story, he said he likes to think of himself as a loyal conservative sent behind enemy lines “to monitor the radicals.”

Schneider came onto McConnell’s radar via the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao. When George W. Bush appointed Chao to head his Department of Labor, Schneider became her first White House liaison, and she gave him free rein to find conservatives to fill more than 200 slots inside the department. He impressed, and, after the Obama transition, migrated into McConnell’s office, where he oversees a sort of national conservative talent search with the title “Policy Advisor and Counsel for Nominations.”

Schneider operates according to a set of five criteria for screening potential nominees first developed by E. Pendleton “Pen” James, Ronald Reagan’s director of personnel management. First, were the nominees competent in the subject matter? Second, were they philosophically compatible with Senator McConnell? Third, did they possess high character and integrity? Fourth, were they tough? Fifth, were they team players?

The result, two or three hundred appointees later, is measurable.

Of course the ultimate aim for such bureaucracies should be to get rid of them or limit their power–something McConnell also engages in, as when he spearheaded the challenge to Obama’s unconstitutional recess appointments, which resulted recently in a unanimous Supreme Court rejection of Obama’s power grab.

But conservatives can fight those fights while engaging in limited reform from within the regulatory state. They don’t have to cede ground just because they wish that ground didn’t exist.

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The Casualties of Obama’s War on Coal

This week President Obama is expected to announce new regulations on carbon emissions that will have a potentially devastating impact on America’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. The move was made possible by Supreme Court decisions that ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had the right to regulate such emissions, giving the president virtual carte blanche to remake this sector of our economy without requiring congressional consent. As the New York Times reports today, this decision is being closely watched abroad as governments look to see whether the U.S. is setting a good example for other nations, such as China, whose economies are driven by coal and which do far more polluting of the atmosphere than America does.

Yet the Chinese aren’t the only ones following this issue. The president has already signaled that addressing climate change was one of the priorities of his second term as well as making it clear that he was eager to move ahead and govern by executive order rather than via the normal constitutional process that involves the legislative branch. As such, the White House rightly anticipates that this broadside aimed at the coal industry will be intensely popular with Obama’s core constituencies on the left as well as the liberal mainstream media. But while leading Democratic donors such as Tom Steyer will be cheering a measure that fits his ideological agenda, not everybody in the Democratic Party is going to be happy with what amounts to a new Obama war on coal. In particular, the Democrats’ brightest hope for stealing a Republican-controlled Senate seat this fall—Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes—may wind up paying a fearful price for Obama’s decision.

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This week President Obama is expected to announce new regulations on carbon emissions that will have a potentially devastating impact on America’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. The move was made possible by Supreme Court decisions that ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had the right to regulate such emissions, giving the president virtual carte blanche to remake this sector of our economy without requiring congressional consent. As the New York Times reports today, this decision is being closely watched abroad as governments look to see whether the U.S. is setting a good example for other nations, such as China, whose economies are driven by coal and which do far more polluting of the atmosphere than America does.

Yet the Chinese aren’t the only ones following this issue. The president has already signaled that addressing climate change was one of the priorities of his second term as well as making it clear that he was eager to move ahead and govern by executive order rather than via the normal constitutional process that involves the legislative branch. As such, the White House rightly anticipates that this broadside aimed at the coal industry will be intensely popular with Obama’s core constituencies on the left as well as the liberal mainstream media. But while leading Democratic donors such as Tom Steyer will be cheering a measure that fits his ideological agenda, not everybody in the Democratic Party is going to be happy with what amounts to a new Obama war on coal. In particular, the Democrats’ brightest hope for stealing a Republican-controlled Senate seat this fall—Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes—may wind up paying a fearful price for Obama’s decision.

As the Times notes, the conundrum of America’s extremist environmentalist lobby lies in the fact that the U.S. is actually doing relatively little of the carbon damage that they believe is fueling global warming. The vast majority of the increase in emissions comes from developing economies around the globe, especially in places like China. While resistance to the sort of tough restrictions on carbon that environmentalists lust for is strong in nations that produce fossil-based fuels, the Chinese believe that the West should pay the steep economic price involved in such schemes while they and other developing nations are allowed to burn all the coal they want. By making his ruling, Obama won’t just be harming the U.S. economy. By setting a good example, Washington thinks their going first will somehow persuade the Chinese to follow suit.

This is highly unlikely. Though it pays lip service to global warming theories, China’s top priority is building their economy. Meanwhile, nations such as Russia are not shy about stating their unwillingness to stop burning coal. But by taking what he believes is the high road with respect to the environment, the president will be fulfilling not only the promises made to his domestic liberal constituencies but also behaving in a manner that is consistent with his belief in multilateral foreign policy.

But back at home this high-minded environmentalism may not play as well as he thinks. Many Americans fear that Obama will damage their economy while doing nothing to alter the warming equation that is being decided elsewhere. Though the media has followed the White House playbook in emphasizing any report that hypes the threat from global warming while downplaying any development that undermines this thesis, the public has demonstrated repeatedly that this issue is not a priority, especially when compared to their concerns about the economy and jobs. And this is exactly what the president’s orders will affect most grievously.

Among the biggest losers will be regions where the coal industry is a mainstay of the economy. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the best example of such a state is Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains the country’s most endangered Republican in an election cycle that should otherwise be quite favorable to the GOP. McConnell has been working hard to tie Grimes to Obama, a charge that she has steadfastly rejected. But the president’s regulatory war on coal will be a body blow to Grimes’s attempt to argue that it will be her and not Obama who will be on the ballot this November. Grimes smartly opposes the administration’s environmentalist stands with respect to coal, but the new orders will escalate the struggle to a point where it could play a crucial role in the midterms. Grimes has sought to make McConnell the main issue in the contest, something that is not to the advantage of the dour minority leader and longtime incumbent. But if the key issue is defense of Kentucky’s coal industry against the White House, it will be difficult for the Democrat to assert that she will be in a better position to resist this assault than the man who may be the majority leader of the upper body next January. In a contest to see who can be most hostile to Obama, the GOP has the edge over even the most independent Democrat.

The war on coal is exactly the ticket to fire up the president’s coastal elite base as well as very much what the international community wants. But it could be the death knell for Grimes’s Senate hopes. If that race makes the difference in deciding control of the Senate, it could be that global warming will be the issue that pushes Obama from a weak-second term incumbent to dead-in-the-water lame duck.

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The “War on Women” and the Democrats’ Kentucky Cheap Shots

Alison Lundergan Grimes is running for the Senate in an attempt to unseat the upper chamber’s Republican leader, and she has a message for the voters: she’s a she. As the Washington Post reports:

Often appearing in a brightly colored dress, Grimes repeatedly refers to her wardrobe in her campaign addresses, even talking about her high heels. She calls herself a “strong Kentucky woman” or an “independent Kentucky woman” and, as she did Tuesday night, describes her grandmother as “one of the fiercest Kentucky women I know.” …

“This is a Kentucky woman through and through, who proudly wears a dress,” she said at one of her final stops along a statewide bus tour that culminated with Tuesday’s primary.…

She wasn’t done talking about what she was wearing.

“I have stood strong in these heels,” she said shortly after her speech in a brief interview inside her bus. “I’ve run circles around [McConnell] in this state in my heels, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

This is an interesting tactic to highlight the Democrats’ invented and condescending “war on women.” But there are good reasons for it–most notably, she would prefer not to talk policy or the issues, since her party is so hostile to Kentucky voters’ concerns.

As the Associated Press reports, Grimes is trying desperately to avoid taking a position on whether she’d have supported ObamaCare. The president’s health-care reform law is unpopular, and Grimes no doubt would like to benefit from the fact that she was not in Congress when Democrats voted for a terrible bill they hadn’t read out of blind loyalty to their dear leader.

At the same time, Grimes doesn’t want to take a stand against it, not least because demonstrating the consensus against ObamaCare would only highlight the fact that her election would further enable ObamaCare’s destructive consequences.

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Alison Lundergan Grimes is running for the Senate in an attempt to unseat the upper chamber’s Republican leader, and she has a message for the voters: she’s a she. As the Washington Post reports:

Often appearing in a brightly colored dress, Grimes repeatedly refers to her wardrobe in her campaign addresses, even talking about her high heels. She calls herself a “strong Kentucky woman” or an “independent Kentucky woman” and, as she did Tuesday night, describes her grandmother as “one of the fiercest Kentucky women I know.” …

“This is a Kentucky woman through and through, who proudly wears a dress,” she said at one of her final stops along a statewide bus tour that culminated with Tuesday’s primary.…

She wasn’t done talking about what she was wearing.

“I have stood strong in these heels,” she said shortly after her speech in a brief interview inside her bus. “I’ve run circles around [McConnell] in this state in my heels, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

This is an interesting tactic to highlight the Democrats’ invented and condescending “war on women.” But there are good reasons for it–most notably, she would prefer not to talk policy or the issues, since her party is so hostile to Kentucky voters’ concerns.

As the Associated Press reports, Grimes is trying desperately to avoid taking a position on whether she’d have supported ObamaCare. The president’s health-care reform law is unpopular, and Grimes no doubt would like to benefit from the fact that she was not in Congress when Democrats voted for a terrible bill they hadn’t read out of blind loyalty to their dear leader.

At the same time, Grimes doesn’t want to take a stand against it, not least because demonstrating the consensus against ObamaCare would only highlight the fact that her election would further enable ObamaCare’s destructive consequences.

So she’s simply repeating over and over again that she’s wearing a dress–“She paused, looked down at her strawberry-red outfit, and let the crowd of a few dozen supporters whoop and holler at the inside joke,” the Post explains after Grimes told the crowd she “proudly wears a dress.”

There are pitfalls to this strategy as well. Grimes is a seasoned partisan, but she seems to have made a classic rookie mistake along the lines of Christine O’Donnell:

Alison Lundergan Grimes says it everywhere she goes. She said it at dozens of stops in Kentucky over the past week. She said it at her victory speech here Tuesday night after securing the Democratic nomination for Senate. And she plans to say it again all the way to November. She’s not an “empty dress.”

Ever since a Republican strategist used the insult months ago to belittle the 35-year-old Grimes, she has made it a rallying point in her quest to dislodge the Senate’s GOP leader, Mitch McConnell, from the Kentucky seat he has held for three decades.

Everywhere she goes she proclaims she’s not an empty dress? Not only does that come across as defensive, it reminds the crowds of the accusation. This is where the “war on women” rhetoric poses a challenge. Democrats don’t think women are smart enough or capable enough to out-debate and out-campaign their opponents on the issues, so they’ve instructed them to play the victim. But that requires Democratic women to consistently raise the idea that they can’t win on the merits.

If Grimes has already internalized the Democratic Party’s belief that women are inferior candidates, she’s going to have an uphill climb in a Senate election. Additionally, the “war on women” claims open the left up to accusations of hypocrisy. A notable example this election season was when Oregon Democrats spurred overly personal attacks on a Republican victim of domestic violence. The creepy attacks were meant to help Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley.

It’s too soon to tell whether that will backfire on Merkley, but Grimes is now under fire for a bizarre false attack on McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao. Specifically, Grimes attacked the family’s wealth after Chao’s mother passed away and left her daughter an inheritance. Grimes suggested Chao’s inheritance money was actually ill-gotten gains McConnell accrued in the Senate.

This is just the beginning of the campaign, so it’s possible Grimes will get her footing. Hopefully the attack on Chao over her deceased mother represents a low point for Grimes’s campaign and it’ll be uphill from here. Perhaps she’ll also find a communications team smart enough to tell her to stop announcing she’s not an empty dress. Either way, the Grimes campaign thus far is a good indication of the damage the Democrats’ “war on women” is doing to political discourse.

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Dems Won’t Be Saved Again by the Tea Party

Yesterday’s primary results in Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, and Idaho confirmed what has already become an obvious trend this year. Tea Party-backed candidates would not sweep to victory in Republican primary fights across the nation as they largely did in 2010 and 2012. That was good news for the so-called GOP establishment as well as for incumbents like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crushed his Tea Party challenger in a Kentucky landslide. But it is even worse news for President Obama and the Democrats. Republicans blew golden opportunities to take winnable Senate seats from vulnerable Democratic incumbents in both the last two federal elections.

The results in Kentucky as well as in Oregon where the GOP nominated its strongest possible candidate in Dr. Monica Wehby and even in Georgia, where two mainstream candidates will face off in runoff, doesn’t mean that the Republicans are a lock to get to 51 Senate seats. McConnell is in for the fight of his life with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Wehby faces a tough incumbent in Jeff Merkley, and whoever wins the GOP nod in Georgia will not have an easy time beating Democrat Michelle Nunn. But if Harry Reid does hang on as majority leader it won’t be because the GOP was saddled with the kind of outlier candidates like the one that was largely responsible for reelecting the Nevada senator.

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Yesterday’s primary results in Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, and Idaho confirmed what has already become an obvious trend this year. Tea Party-backed candidates would not sweep to victory in Republican primary fights across the nation as they largely did in 2010 and 2012. That was good news for the so-called GOP establishment as well as for incumbents like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crushed his Tea Party challenger in a Kentucky landslide. But it is even worse news for President Obama and the Democrats. Republicans blew golden opportunities to take winnable Senate seats from vulnerable Democratic incumbents in both the last two federal elections.

The results in Kentucky as well as in Oregon where the GOP nominated its strongest possible candidate in Dr. Monica Wehby and even in Georgia, where two mainstream candidates will face off in runoff, doesn’t mean that the Republicans are a lock to get to 51 Senate seats. McConnell is in for the fight of his life with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Wehby faces a tough incumbent in Jeff Merkley, and whoever wins the GOP nod in Georgia will not have an easy time beating Democrat Michelle Nunn. But if Harry Reid does hang on as majority leader it won’t be because the GOP was saddled with the kind of outlier candidates like the one that was largely responsible for reelecting the Nevada senator.

It bears repeating that those in the media who are treating this as an ideological shift in which moderates have triumphed over conservatives are mistaken. Though individual groups that claimed the Tea Party banner have attempted to transform a broad grassroots movement into something with a specific address and card-carrying members (while liberals have falsely imagined it to be the function of a few large conservative donors like the Koch brothers pulling the puppet strings of political operatives), the Tea Party movement was always something far more amorphous. It began as an inchoate push across the board from conservatives who were angry about the betrayal of what they felt were the party’s principles from big government Republicans in Congress as well as about the Obama administration’s billion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare.

In its first bloom in 2010 and to a lesser degree in 2012 that rise led to the nomination of people like Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who had no business getting major party nods. That happened because of the perception that their opponents were somehow part of the permanent governing class that had no compunction about increasing the debt in order to keep funding a government with no limits. But what has happened in recent years is that virtually the entire Republican Party has embraced Tea Party ideology when it comes to the big issues of taxing and spending. While the liberal mainstream media has always labeled Tea Partiers as being a bunch of wild-eyed extremists who were liable to be racists as well as at war with the federal government, the reality is that most of the voters and candidates who identify with the term are simply conservatives who are tired of business as usual Republicans.

What happened on Tuesday is not a situation where mainstream Republicans bested Tea Partiers and beat them on the issues. Rather, it was that voters were faced with candidates that largely shared the same views but understandably preferred more electable Republicans to those who were unlikely to prevail in November.

Indeed, this ideological shift is noticeable even among the Democrats who are being nominated to oppose these conservatives. Candidates like Grimes and Nunn are doing everything to distance themselves from President Obama and seeking to appeal to mainstream voters. While Democrats in blue states are veering to the left, those in the rest of the country understand that they must come across as being comfortable with the basic conservatism of most Americans. That’s good politics, and if the GOP lets them get away with obscuring their dedication to failed liberal policies, the Democrats will prevail.

But after years of the media echo chamber flaying the Republicans for being in thrall to extremists, GOP primary voters have taken that issue off the table. Without it, Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold the Senate.

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Can the GOP Define Dem Senate Challengers?

Today’s primaries in six states across the nation are providing a multiplicity of narratives, but the most popular is the one in which the Tea Party is being depicted as the big loser. If polls are correct those Republican candidates most closely identified with the Tea Party are set to lose to politicians who are backed by the so-called GOP establishment. But as with a number of previous elections in which Tea Partiers have lost, this is somewhat misleading. Though some running under the Tea Party banner, like Matt Bevin in Kentucky, are certain losers, that is more a reflection of the weaknesses of these individuals or the strengths of their opponents (in Bevin’s case, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) than any lack of support for the cause of fiscal conservatism that first swept the nation in 2010.

But once the dust settles after today’s primaries the real question facing Republicans will not be about the future of a Tea Party that has already won due to the conversion of virtually the entire Republican Party to Tea Party principles about taxation and spending. Rather, it will be whether they can define Democratic opponents whose challenges in two key races threaten to prevent the GOP from taking back the Senate. While most of the attention has been focused on the GOP Senate primaries in Kentucky (where McConnell is fending off Bevin) and Georgia where a free-for-all has weakened the party and made a runoff likely, the Democratic standard-bearers are already known. Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes and Georgia’s Michelle Nunn both look to be formidable general-election candidates.

But more to the point, the GOP intramural fights have allowed both women, who already have the advantage of name recognition stemming from their famous politician fathers, to emerge largely unscathed to this point. While they can expect that to change once their opponents are named, the conceit of both of their campaigns is to run as centrists who are not identified with President Obama or his unpopular ObamaCare legislation. The question is whether or not it is possible for Republicans to convince the public that, in fact, both are liberals who will seek to implement the president’s agenda rather than pursue the centrist course they claim to support. If Republicans can’t define these two challengers in this manner, their chances of winning control of the Senate may be lost.

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Today’s primaries in six states across the nation are providing a multiplicity of narratives, but the most popular is the one in which the Tea Party is being depicted as the big loser. If polls are correct those Republican candidates most closely identified with the Tea Party are set to lose to politicians who are backed by the so-called GOP establishment. But as with a number of previous elections in which Tea Partiers have lost, this is somewhat misleading. Though some running under the Tea Party banner, like Matt Bevin in Kentucky, are certain losers, that is more a reflection of the weaknesses of these individuals or the strengths of their opponents (in Bevin’s case, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) than any lack of support for the cause of fiscal conservatism that first swept the nation in 2010.

But once the dust settles after today’s primaries the real question facing Republicans will not be about the future of a Tea Party that has already won due to the conversion of virtually the entire Republican Party to Tea Party principles about taxation and spending. Rather, it will be whether they can define Democratic opponents whose challenges in two key races threaten to prevent the GOP from taking back the Senate. While most of the attention has been focused on the GOP Senate primaries in Kentucky (where McConnell is fending off Bevin) and Georgia where a free-for-all has weakened the party and made a runoff likely, the Democratic standard-bearers are already known. Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes and Georgia’s Michelle Nunn both look to be formidable general-election candidates.

But more to the point, the GOP intramural fights have allowed both women, who already have the advantage of name recognition stemming from their famous politician fathers, to emerge largely unscathed to this point. While they can expect that to change once their opponents are named, the conceit of both of their campaigns is to run as centrists who are not identified with President Obama or his unpopular ObamaCare legislation. The question is whether or not it is possible for Republicans to convince the public that, in fact, both are liberals who will seek to implement the president’s agenda rather than pursue the centrist course they claim to support. If Republicans can’t define these two challengers in this manner, their chances of winning control of the Senate may be lost.

In Grimes’s case, she has already been under fire from McConnell’s formidable political machine but has, at least to date, been able to portray herself as a centrist alternative to a rabidly partisan minority leader, even if the senator’s primary opponent has absurdly blasted him as a liberal. She can expect those attacks to intensify in the coming months but it is not clear whether efforts to portray her as an Obama acolyte will overcome McConnell’s own low popularity in what polls show to be a dead heat.

But Nunn’s ability to get a free pass from the press and the GOP may have already compromised the Republicans’ ability to hold a seat being vacated by the retiring Saxby Chambliss. To date, Nunn has escaped much scrutiny for refusing to take a stand on most of the president’s policies, even refusing to say whether she would have voted for ObamaCare when it was passed in 2010 or what she would do about the deficit other than the usual empty clichés about stopping fraud and eliminating waste. Unless Republicans can effectively highlight this deceptive strategy, she has a decent chance of winning a Senate seat largely on the strength of being former Senator Sam Nunn’s daughter.

If Republicans want to see what happens to challengers–especially women who are newcomers to politics–when their opponents seek to define them as out of the mainstream, they should look to Oregon where the most formidable GOP Senate candidate seeking the party’s nomination today has been damaged by stories about her supposed stalking of a former boyfriend and husband. Dr. Monica Wehby gained national attention in the last month with her ad titled “Trust,” which featured the parent of one of the patients she treated in her capacity as a pediatric neurosurgeon. Wehby is pretty much a political consultant’s dream in that she is bright, principled, and has no political baggage. As such, she looked to have a better than average chance to put the seat currently held by Democrat Jeff Merkley into play despite the fact that Oregon is a very blue state. But the stories about stalking have put that in doubt. While any candidate is responsible for his or her own behavior, the willingness of Democrats to try to use what appear to be minor, non-violent personal disputes to depict her as a real-life version of the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction shows just how miserable a business politics can be.

While Wehby may yet survive this siege, the lesson here for Republicans is that their opponents’ bare knuckles tactics illustrate just how far they are willing to go in order to hold their Senate majority. While hopefully the GOP won’t sink to that level in order to defeat Grimes or Nunn, neither can they sit back and just hope the voters will wake up and realize that electing them is a vote for Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid, not centrist politics. In an election that hinges on the GOP’s ability to hold its own seats while beating vulnerable Democratic incumbents, the ability to define challengers may be the key to the 2014 midterms.

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Not All Political Gaffes Are Created Equal

With this year’s Senate races starting to heat up, the media (and opposition research trackers from the campaigns) are going over anything said or released by anyone running for the kind of gaffe that can turn a race around. Examples, like former Senator George Allen’s weird “macaca” insult thrown at a Democratic operative in 2006 or Todd Akin’s obtuse comments about rape and pregnancy, keep staffers searching for mistakes like ’49ers panning for gold.

This week, we had two major gaffes by senatorial campaigns that left the candidates—Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley—with egg on their faces. But while both got considerable and deserved coverage, a close look at the two demonstrates that not all political gaffes are created equal. While McConnell was embarrassed by the error made by the people who produced a campaign video, Braley’s taped comments dismissing Iowa Senator Charles Grassley as a mere “farmer from Iowa” may well rank with Allen or Akin’s gaffes. Even worse, like Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” line, also made at a fundraiser to what he presumed was a friendly audience, Braley’s indiscretion may transform him from a likely winner to a candidate who may turn a blue seat into a red one in November.

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With this year’s Senate races starting to heat up, the media (and opposition research trackers from the campaigns) are going over anything said or released by anyone running for the kind of gaffe that can turn a race around. Examples, like former Senator George Allen’s weird “macaca” insult thrown at a Democratic operative in 2006 or Todd Akin’s obtuse comments about rape and pregnancy, keep staffers searching for mistakes like ’49ers panning for gold.

This week, we had two major gaffes by senatorial campaigns that left the candidates—Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley—with egg on their faces. But while both got considerable and deserved coverage, a close look at the two demonstrates that not all political gaffes are created equal. While McConnell was embarrassed by the error made by the people who produced a campaign video, Braley’s taped comments dismissing Iowa Senator Charles Grassley as a mere “farmer from Iowa” may well rank with Allen or Akin’s gaffes. Even worse, like Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” line, also made at a fundraiser to what he presumed was a friendly audience, Braley’s indiscretion may transform him from a likely winner to a candidate who may turn a blue seat into a red one in November.

The two mistakes in question were the kind designed to generate coverage. In the case of McConnell, it concerned a campaign video posted on the Internet that featured a montage of images while the voice of the candidate is heard promising what he will do if he takes over as majority leader of the Senate next year, something that requires not only major Republican gains around the country, but also his reelection in what promises to be a tough race against Alison Lundergan Grimes. One of the final images seen is a brief glimpse of basketball players wearing blue and white jerseys celebrating a victory. But unfortunately for McConnell, the players on the court are not members of the University of Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA champions but those of Duke University’s 2010 winners of the same title (who wear the same colors but with a different name on their shirts). Suffice it to say that McConnell will never hear the end of this in basketball-mad Kentucky.

But there is a difference between a video montage created by a staff—and which appears for approximately two seconds on the screen—and the sort of elitist contempt displayed by Braley. As Tom Bevan wrote on RealClearPolitics about the incident, it’s hard to understand why a candidate in this day and age doesn’t assume that the “camera is on” no matter where they are and to whom they are speaking. It is also astonishing that someone running for office in an agricultural state would disparage a farmer in any context.

The context in question, which Democratic apologists have cited, is that he was discussing the fact that if the Republicans take control of the Senate, Grassley, the state’s senior senator, will become the chair of the Judiciary Committee. This is something that Braley, a trial lawyer by profession who was speaking to a group of trial lawyers at a Dallas fundraiser, regards with horror not only because Grassley is a Republican but because he isn’t a lawyer. Perhaps most lawyers feel the same way, but the odds are, most voters in any state view the matter differently. If anything, the fact that Grassley isn’t a lawyer would probably be an argument in favor of the GOP since most Americans think lawyers already have too much influence in Congress. And it’s probably a given that most Iowans think there’s nothing wrong with having a farmer—even one that’s served on the Judiciary Committee for many years—telling the lawyers what to do.

Thus, rather than just an embarrassing gaffe that could be viewed as an insult to the honor of Iowa and made up for by enough groveling tributes to agriculture by Braley, the video of him showing disrespect for Grassley’s qualifications is the kind of mistake that voters understand gives them an insight into the candidate’s character. That’s something the Republican candidate will take full advantage of, especially if it turns out to be State Senator Joni Ernst, who has been stumping the state bragging that she will make Washington squeal the same way that the pigs she castrated back on her family farm did. Interestingly, that line seems to have Ernst, who was widely seen as more a favorite of establishment Republicans than Tea Partiers or social conservatives, Sarah Palin’s endorsement this week.

Unlike McConnell’s blooper, Braley’s mistake could help cost the Democrats a seat (currently held by the retiring Tom Harkin) they can ill afford to lose.

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Even in KY, Focus Is Obama, Not McConnell

In a week in which Democrats have already received a harsh wake-up call about the nature of the 2014 midterms in the form of a stunning loss in the special election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, today’s New York Times article about the Kentucky Senate race will likely give liberals another conniption fit. The piece, a preview of a new Times-run site called Upshot, debunks the popular Democratic belief that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is doomed to defeat this November. Upshot may turn out to be nothing more than an attempt at an edgier version of Times political coverage intended to compete with the popular political news websites that have been running rings around old media print-based papers for years. But in this case author Nate Cohn is right on the money. Despite the wild optimism about Alison Lundergan Grimes’s challenge to McConnell that has become conventional wisdom in the liberal mainstream media, the odds against the Democrats in Kentucky are far greater than most on the left will concede.

As Cohn points out, the problem for liberals in Kentucky is no different from the one they faced this week in Florida when a superior and well-funded Democratic candidate lost to an inferior Republican. In Florida-13, national issues helped keep a seat in Republican hands in a district that Barack Obama won twice. As much as Democrats are trying to make the election a referendum on McConnell, 2014 is all about President Obama and ObamaCare. And as long as that is the case, Democrats are in big trouble.

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In a week in which Democrats have already received a harsh wake-up call about the nature of the 2014 midterms in the form of a stunning loss in the special election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, today’s New York Times article about the Kentucky Senate race will likely give liberals another conniption fit. The piece, a preview of a new Times-run site called Upshot, debunks the popular Democratic belief that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is doomed to defeat this November. Upshot may turn out to be nothing more than an attempt at an edgier version of Times political coverage intended to compete with the popular political news websites that have been running rings around old media print-based papers for years. But in this case author Nate Cohn is right on the money. Despite the wild optimism about Alison Lundergan Grimes’s challenge to McConnell that has become conventional wisdom in the liberal mainstream media, the odds against the Democrats in Kentucky are far greater than most on the left will concede.

As Cohn points out, the problem for liberals in Kentucky is no different from the one they faced this week in Florida when a superior and well-funded Democratic candidate lost to an inferior Republican. In Florida-13, national issues helped keep a seat in Republican hands in a district that Barack Obama won twice. As much as Democrats are trying to make the election a referendum on McConnell, 2014 is all about President Obama and ObamaCare. And as long as that is the case, Democrats are in big trouble.

The mainstream media narrative about the Kentucky race has been fairly consistent. McConnell is the Republican liberals seem to despise the most and 2014 seemed to create a perfect storm of circumstances that could guarantee his defeat. Many Tea Party activists regard McConnell as the quintessential establishment traitor to their cause leading Matt Bevin, a wealthy investment executive, to try to take out McConnell in a primary. But even if he survived a primary, Democrats are fielding a formidable candidate in Grimes, who has a strong record as Kentucky secretary of state and can mobilize heavy hitters like former President Bill Clinton to back her candidacy. The party establishment felt so strongly about Grimes that they went all out to discourage actress Ashley Judd from running and the result is that she has a clear path to November. All that adds up to a competitive race that probably gives the Democrats their best—and perhaps only—chance to unseat a Republican senator this year.

But, as Cohn points out, assuming that a red state like Kentucky will oust an incumbent Republican senator, not to mention one as powerful as the minority leader (who may well become majority leader next January) is a leap of faith that sensible political observers shouldn’t make. The number of incumbents in McConnell’s position that have been defeated for reelection in the last generation can be counted on one hand. Indeed, the only real precedent for such an event is what happened to Alaska’s Ted Stevens in 2008 when Mark Begich narrowly defeated him after the senator was convicted in a corruption case. But, as Cohn helpfully points out, as much as Democrats and some right-wing activists might hate him, McConnell isn’t a convicted felon (while failing to note that Stevens’s conviction was later overturned because of the outrageous and illegal conduct of his prosecutors, though that did the Alaskan, who died in a plane crash soon after the election, little good).

If, as Cohn points out, McConnell could be reelected in 2008 in the middle of the electoral wave for Barack Obama as well as in the wake of his role in the passage of the TARP bailout for the banks, it’s hard to imagine him losing in the midst of what almost everyone concedes will be a big Republican year with voter outrage focused on ObamaCare. Throw in the fact that anger about Obama’s anti-coal policies is running red hot in the state’s coal producing regions and it’s hard to see how Grimes gets to a majority this year.

Moreover, as Cohn also notes, Grimes’s good poll numbers that show her even with the senator have a fatal flaw. She’s currently polling in the low 40s, which sounds good but, given Kentucky’s past voting patterns, that may be her ceiling rather than a jumping off point.

More than anything else, like other Democrats, Grimes is going to have to deal with the massive fallout from ObamaCare. Like Alex Sink in Florida-13, Grimes is trying to finesse the issue by saying the law should be fixed rather than repealed. The Kentucky ObamaCare exchange is working better than in most states leading some to conclude health care won’t be the issue in that state that it is elsewhere. But that’s an assumption that fails to take into account the dynamic of how a national issue can overwhelm local concerns. And, as Sink discovered, the “fix it” mantra may not turn out to be so smart anyway since it forces Democrats to play on Republican turf.

It’s true that Mitch McConnell has a fight on his hands and Grimes may well have a future in national politics beyond this year. But those counting on the minority leader losing are probably backing the wrong horse in this year’s Senate derby.

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The Tea Party Five Years In

This past week marked the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Tea Party Movement. Here are some thoughts on it. 

1. The Tea Party arose from a justifiable concern with the expanding size, scope and reach of the federal government. It was an important factor in the epic 2010 mid-term election. At its best it has integrated itself into the GOP while continuing to apply pressure to Republican leaders to re-limit government and waring them against making careless and unprincipled deals.

2. Particularly early on, the elite media smeared the Tea Party as racist. The double standard was particularly evident in how the press covered the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which was responsible for violence, sexual assaults, arson and general filth in the areas it choose to occupy. If the Tea Party had committed a fraction of the lawless things done by OWS, it would have dominated news coverage for months. But because OWS was advancing a progressive agenda, the transgressions were politely overlooked. (I wrote about the bias here.)

3. The Tea Party has been an important factor in the political rise of senators like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who have been outstanding additions to Congress. But it has also gotten behind other candidates in primaries – Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and others — who flamed out. The result is that Democrats still retain control of the Senate when they could easily have lost control of it.

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This past week marked the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Tea Party Movement. Here are some thoughts on it. 

1. The Tea Party arose from a justifiable concern with the expanding size, scope and reach of the federal government. It was an important factor in the epic 2010 mid-term election. At its best it has integrated itself into the GOP while continuing to apply pressure to Republican leaders to re-limit government and waring them against making careless and unprincipled deals.

2. Particularly early on, the elite media smeared the Tea Party as racist. The double standard was particularly evident in how the press covered the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which was responsible for violence, sexual assaults, arson and general filth in the areas it choose to occupy. If the Tea Party had committed a fraction of the lawless things done by OWS, it would have dominated news coverage for months. But because OWS was advancing a progressive agenda, the transgressions were politely overlooked. (I wrote about the bias here.)

3. The Tea Party has been an important factor in the political rise of senators like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who have been outstanding additions to Congress. But it has also gotten behind other candidates in primaries – Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and others — who flamed out. The result is that Democrats still retain control of the Senate when they could easily have lost control of it.

4.  How positive a force the Tea Party ends up being depends in large part on whether its populist sentiments are channeled in a constructive or destructive way. If the movement becomes one which finds its greatest satisfaction in (a) trying to excommunicate those whom they deem to be the ideologically impure — like those well-known leftists Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Pete Sessions, both of whom have received 100 percent ratings by the American Conservative Union — and (b) championing tactics like shutting down the federal government, it will damage conservatism by discrediting it.

If on the other hand the Tea Party directs its energies toward supporting serious, principles candidates with cross-over appeal and who will advance far-reaching conservative reforms in areas like Medicare, health care, the tax code, elementary, secondary and higher education, and energy, it will be a hugely positive force in American politics.

5. It’s not clear right now which direction the Tea Party will go or what will ultimately become of it. At this particular moment the key to understanding what is animating members of the Tea Party is frustration and outright anger with what they derisively refer to as The Establishment, most especially the GOP establishment, which they see as supine, weak, craven, and timid. That is the thing I’ve heard most often from those who identify with the Tea Party – that Republicans, and in particular GOP leaders, are seized by an “abject fear” of the left, that they are constantly “caving it” to President Obama and Democrats, and simply unwilling to fight. 

Those feelings, while not wholly unjustified, have, I think, led the Tea Party down some blind alleys and into some silly mistakes. The danger is that those feelings are stoked by demagogues in and out of office and that they intensify; that the Tea Party becomes more agitated, more consumed by resentments, and more apocalyptic in its rhetoric and outlook. That would ultimately be self-destructive.

This fate isn’t a foregone conclusion by any means. The Tea Party movement itself (as opposed to some of the organizations that claim to speak for it) is more variegated than is commonly thought, political movements are subject to shifting currents, and Republicans would be unwise to give up on the Tea Party or render sweeping, definitive judgments about it. What Republicans have to hope for is that figures emerge whom members of the Tea Party trust and who can help guide and direct the Tea Party in constructive and conservative, rather than a destructive and radical, ways.

A great deal in American politics hinges on whether such individuals materialize. 

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Why the Tea Party and GOP Just Can’t Quit Each Other

The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker has a piece on the dilemma confronting Tea Party groups working to oust Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Senate primary, and it should serve as a cautionary tale. The enthusiasm for primary challenges, as we’ve noted time and again, has its dramatic success stories (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee) and its less vaunted adventures (Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell). There is no blanket rule: incumbents don’t own their seats, but sometimes attention and resources can be more strategically deployed in election years.

Additionally, primary challengers should have to earn their support just as incumbents should: calling yourself a Tea Party candidate–especially since Democrats have long since figured out how to game that system and divide the right–shouldn’t be all it takes to get votes and donations. The worst-case scenario is generally considered to be a primary challenger knocking off an “electable” (no, I’m not fond of that word either, but sometimes it does apply) candidate and then losing in the general election. It’s unclear how far Matt Bevin, the Kentuckian challenging McConnell, will get, but so far he’s been underwhelming. Last week Politico revealed that Bevin was something of a hypocrite:

Matt Bevin, who is challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary, calls the 2008 federal bailout of banks and Wall Street giants “irresponsible” and says he would have opposed it as a senator.

Yet back in 2008, as an investment fund president, Bevin backed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, as well as the government takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. McConnell supported TARP, and the Bevin campaign repeatedly reminds voters that the Senate minority leader calls that vote “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.”

Politico also explained that conservative groups backing Bevin seemed unshaken by the revelations. Drucker follows up with those groups, and finds they’re still in Bevin’s corner:

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The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker has a piece on the dilemma confronting Tea Party groups working to oust Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Senate primary, and it should serve as a cautionary tale. The enthusiasm for primary challenges, as we’ve noted time and again, has its dramatic success stories (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee) and its less vaunted adventures (Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell). There is no blanket rule: incumbents don’t own their seats, but sometimes attention and resources can be more strategically deployed in election years.

Additionally, primary challengers should have to earn their support just as incumbents should: calling yourself a Tea Party candidate–especially since Democrats have long since figured out how to game that system and divide the right–shouldn’t be all it takes to get votes and donations. The worst-case scenario is generally considered to be a primary challenger knocking off an “electable” (no, I’m not fond of that word either, but sometimes it does apply) candidate and then losing in the general election. It’s unclear how far Matt Bevin, the Kentuckian challenging McConnell, will get, but so far he’s been underwhelming. Last week Politico revealed that Bevin was something of a hypocrite:

Matt Bevin, who is challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary, calls the 2008 federal bailout of banks and Wall Street giants “irresponsible” and says he would have opposed it as a senator.

Yet back in 2008, as an investment fund president, Bevin backed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, as well as the government takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. McConnell supported TARP, and the Bevin campaign repeatedly reminds voters that the Senate minority leader calls that vote “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.”

Politico also explained that conservative groups backing Bevin seemed unshaken by the revelations. Drucker follows up with those groups, and finds they’re still in Bevin’s corner:

In email exchanges with the Washington Examiner, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project vigorously defended Bevin’s personal integrity and conservative credentials. They denied accusations that they targeted McConnell, and continue to invest in Bevin, in an attempt to garner political power, gain attention or raise money.

“Between McConnell and Bevin, McConnell was the only one with the opportunity to prevent TARP from becoming a reality, and he enthusiastically voted for it and convinced others to follow,” Madison Project spokesman Daniel Horowitz said.

One GOP operative even tells Drucker that the groups backing Bevin are destroying their credibility the way they think the party establishment has by supporting the wrong candidates: “That stain does not come out … It’s like the NRSC endorsing Charlie Crist. It leaves a lasting impression whether that’s fair or not.”

The Crist insult is particularly timely, as the former Florida governor is now running for office as a Democrat. Regardless of the virtues of either candidate, however, it’s important that neither side lose perspective. That the Tea Party and the establishment would continue to clash was inevitable. The idea that they can’t, or shouldn’t, coexist within the same party structure is bunk.

In his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington noted that the political party was–despite some of the Founders’ distaste for it–the “distinctive institution of the modern polity.” The other political institutions were in some way “adaptations” or “carry-overs” from earlier systems. Bureaucracies weren’t new, nor were parliaments, elections, courts, or even constitutional frameworks. Huntington allows for one possible competitor to parties as the distinctive modern political institution: federalism, though he dismisses it as not unique the way parties were. Either way, the American system had created something new.

It’s worth quoting what he says next to fully understand why the Tea Party is such an important component of American politics:

Cliques and factions exist in all political systems. So also do parties in the sense of informal groups competing with each other for power and influence. But parties in the sense of organizations are a product of modern politics. Political parties exist in the modern polity because only modern political systems require institutions to organize mass participation in politics. The political party as an organization had its forerunners in the revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first appearance of organized political parties, however, comes in the eighteenth century in those countries where political participation was first expanded, in America and then in France. The shift, in Rudolph’s terms, from the politics of status to the politics of opinion, led to the creation of the political party as a political institution.

I am particularly fond of that phrase: “the shift … from the politics of status to the politics of opinion.” The left’s major electoral vehicle today is the Democratic Party, which has shifted from the politics of opinion back to the politics of status. If you’re related to a Kennedy, a Clinton, or a Dingell, you’re still being handed power the moment you ask for it. The Tea Party, to its great credit, does not want that replicated on the right. It isn’t just against the politics of status but it’s also representative of the politics of opinion.

But those opinions are fulfilled through the right’s manifestation of what Huntington called the distinctive institution of modern politics: the party. And the two are compatible not despite their penchant for clashing but precisely because of it. Matt Bevin has every right to challenge Mitch McConnell, and Tea Party groups have every right to support Bevin. But this particular election is shaping up to be a primary for its own sake. And the idea that a politician should be elected merely because of the Tea Party label–well, that’s the politics of status.

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Will GOP Rescue Obama with Debt Fight?

Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw down the gauntlet again on the debt ceiling. Speaking to reporters in Washington, McConnell made it clear that Senate Republicans wouldn’t consider putting through a “clean” debt ceiling bill that would merely rubber stamp the latest installment of out-of-control government spending. The issue was specifically left out of the pragmatic deal cut between the two parties by Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray that eliminated the possibility of another government shutdown for two years. But are Republicans really sanguine about the prospect of another bruising fight about the debt ceiling as well as of the attendant dire and somewhat self-fulfilling prophecies about default and the collapse of the economy?

The budget agreement seemed to indicate that the GOP—or at least House Speaker John Boehner—had learned its lesson from the series of debilitating and largely self-destructive fights they’ve engage in over both the budget and the debt in the last two years, but McConnell’s comments seem to indicate that we may be in for another one sometime early in 2014. But given the beating Republicans have taken over previous attempts to exact concessions from Democrats in such situations, the White House may be hoping that McConnell makes good on his threat. While McConnell and other conservatives are right to believe extending the debt ceiling ought to be accompanied by some gesture from the government that indicates a move toward reform, they need to consider whether another skirmish of this sort will do more to harm their cause than help it.

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Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw down the gauntlet again on the debt ceiling. Speaking to reporters in Washington, McConnell made it clear that Senate Republicans wouldn’t consider putting through a “clean” debt ceiling bill that would merely rubber stamp the latest installment of out-of-control government spending. The issue was specifically left out of the pragmatic deal cut between the two parties by Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray that eliminated the possibility of another government shutdown for two years. But are Republicans really sanguine about the prospect of another bruising fight about the debt ceiling as well as of the attendant dire and somewhat self-fulfilling prophecies about default and the collapse of the economy?

The budget agreement seemed to indicate that the GOP—or at least House Speaker John Boehner—had learned its lesson from the series of debilitating and largely self-destructive fights they’ve engage in over both the budget and the debt in the last two years, but McConnell’s comments seem to indicate that we may be in for another one sometime early in 2014. But given the beating Republicans have taken over previous attempts to exact concessions from Democrats in such situations, the White House may be hoping that McConnell makes good on his threat. While McConnell and other conservatives are right to believe extending the debt ceiling ought to be accompanied by some gesture from the government that indicates a move toward reform, they need to consider whether another skirmish of this sort will do more to harm their cause than help it.

After a year in which a string of scandals and then a disastrous rollout of his signature health-care bill have caused President Obama’s approval ratings to collapse, the White House is looking for a way to change the subject from broken promises and dysfunctional websites.

Their strategy appears to be one in which the president finally makes good on the promises of his 2013 State-of the Union speech and pivots hard left. That’s part of the reason veteran liberal strategist John Podesta has been drafted to help shore up the team of presidential advisors. Obama’s recent speech attempting to make income inequality the fulcrum of the national political debate was largely unpersuasive ideological cant. That’s what the Democratic base wants to hear, but it’s not the sort of thing that will do much to help reelect vulnerable Democrats in red states and keep the Senate out of Republican hands. Nor will it divert the public or even the mainstream media from coverage of the ongoing fiasco that is ObamaCare. But if Republicans throw Obama a lifeline in the form of another debt ceiling crisis, they might provide him with just the opening he needs to both bury the ObamaCare story and to resurrect his favorite campaign theme about GOP extremists who are willing to sacrifice the nation in pursuit of partisan goals.

Such a characterization of Republican efforts to rein in government spending and taxes before agreeing to go on expanding the debt is patently unfair. Tea Party activists and some of their GOP congressional hostages, like McConnell, are in the right on this issue. Raising the debt ceiling isn’t merely paying the bills, it’s a gesture that enables more irresponsibility and has done just that every time it has been raised.

But it needs to be reiterated that with control of only one half of one third of the government, neither House Republicans nor the GOP minority in the Senate have the ability to force Obama and the Democrats to agree to any of the commonsense ideas they propose. Going to the brink over this is a political loser. It is a given that neither Speaker Boehner nor Senator McConnell is really willing to see the nation go over the fiscal cliff over this. Whether the dire predictions heard from liberals are false or not it can’t be denied that the uncertainty will hurt the economy and that Republicans will take the brunt of the blame. Doing so in an election year will only help Democrats reframe the issues in a way that could revive Obama’s increasingly dismal second term and give their party the boost they need to hold onto the Senate.

Conservatives and Tea Partiers will dismiss such warnings as cynical political gamesmanship and brand, as they’ve done every commonsense thing congressional Republicans have done in the past year (like ending the government shutdown or passing the Ryan compromise budget), as a sellout. But the same realism that pushed them to abandon suicidal tactics in the past shouldn’t be ignored now. If conservatives are serious about changing Washington, they are going to have to start by winning the 2014 midterms. A debt-ceiling crisis, like the shutdown, will be a gift to Democrats allowing them to evade questions about presidential misrule and the devastating impact ObamaCare is having on millions of Americans.

Its understandable that McConnell and other Republicans who face stiff primary challenges from the right this year don’t want to be called RINOs and thus are talking about going to the brink again. But if McConnell wants to win in November and move to the majority leader’s desk, he’s going to have to find a way to avoid a debt debacle.

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Can GOP Win Budget Language War?

There are a lot of reasons why Republicans lost the government shutdown. The fact that it was a stupid tactic without a chance of success is at the top of the list. But a large reason why the Democrats seized the metaphorical high ground and never relinquished it was their ability to label the GOP as essentially taking the government hostage because of their demand that ObamaCare be defunded. Their ability to do this is based in no small measure by the way the liberal mainstream media parroted the Democrats’ spin in which Republicans were branded as terrorists. But now that the shutdown is over and the GOP (or at least its leadership) realizes another such effort would be suicidal, one of their priorities should be to start refighting the language war as they prepare to negotiate a budget agreement.

That appears to be what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was doing yesterday when he staked out some familiar territory in opposing the president’s demand for new “revenue” if the two parties are to ever agree on how to keep the government funded in the future. Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, McConnell said:

Unfortunately, every discussion we’ve had about this in the past has had what I would call a ransom attached to it: $1 trillion in new tax revenues. We don’t have this problem because we don’t tax enough in this country; we have this problem because we spend too much.

McConnell’s right, and though this may seem like he’s been saying the same thing for years, his attempt to turn the kidnapper meme around on the president is significant. Rather than tearing each other apart or blaming McConnell (as Ted Cruz does) for the failure of a no-win strategy, this is exactly the line of argument the GOP caucus needs to stick to in the coming months if they are not to be bulldozed once again by the White House.

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There are a lot of reasons why Republicans lost the government shutdown. The fact that it was a stupid tactic without a chance of success is at the top of the list. But a large reason why the Democrats seized the metaphorical high ground and never relinquished it was their ability to label the GOP as essentially taking the government hostage because of their demand that ObamaCare be defunded. Their ability to do this is based in no small measure by the way the liberal mainstream media parroted the Democrats’ spin in which Republicans were branded as terrorists. But now that the shutdown is over and the GOP (or at least its leadership) realizes another such effort would be suicidal, one of their priorities should be to start refighting the language war as they prepare to negotiate a budget agreement.

That appears to be what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was doing yesterday when he staked out some familiar territory in opposing the president’s demand for new “revenue” if the two parties are to ever agree on how to keep the government funded in the future. Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, McConnell said:

Unfortunately, every discussion we’ve had about this in the past has had what I would call a ransom attached to it: $1 trillion in new tax revenues. We don’t have this problem because we don’t tax enough in this country; we have this problem because we spend too much.

McConnell’s right, and though this may seem like he’s been saying the same thing for years, his attempt to turn the kidnapper meme around on the president is significant. Rather than tearing each other apart or blaming McConnell (as Ted Cruz does) for the failure of a no-win strategy, this is exactly the line of argument the GOP caucus needs to stick to in the coming months if they are not to be bulldozed once again by the White House.

At the heart of this problem for Republicans is the fact that their opponents’ demands have been every bit as ideological as their own in the various budget negotiations. If Republicans are adamant that spending must be reined in and that, as McConnell rightly asserts, the country’s problem isn’t that taxes are too low, then how can that position be branded as extremist when Democrats are digging in their heels, demanding that entitlement programs be preserved intact and that taxes must go up? Rather than merely rail at the unfairness of it all, it’s time conservatives started calling out Obama in the same manner that they have been labeled.

Can it work?

Well, as some on the right would be the first to point out, it doesn’t matter what they say if it is only being transmitted to much of the public via the filter of mainstream liberal publications and broadcast outlets. But such a defeatist attitude fails to take into account that earlier generations of conservatives—in particular Ronald Reagan—managed to change the way the country thought about the welfare state in an even more hostile media environment. If Reagan could convince Americans that government was the problem in an era when national television news meant three liberal talking heads and without the help of Fox News and conservative talk radio, how is it that those who claim to be his successors are incapable of changing the way contemporary issues are framed?

It may not be fair to compare anyone to the “Great Communicator,” but the lesson here is not that Republicans need another Reagan. That would be nice, but a more realistic hope is for their talking heads and leaders to concentrate their fire on the unwillingness of the president and his supporters to drop their addiction to taxes and spending. Language not only counts, it is decisive in determining the outcome of political battles. Tea Partiers who are currently obsessed with anger at those on the right who understood that the shutdown was a fiasco need to refocus their ire at the White House. If Republicans hope not to be schooled again by Obama, they’d better start following McConnell’s lead and turning the hostage metaphor around.

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