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.