Mitch McConnell's reelection tonight wasn't very newsworthy. Polls had shown clearly for weeks that Allison Lundergan Grimes was far behind, and far behind is where you would expect a Democrat to be in Kentucky — especially given President Obama's sagging poll numbers.
But at a time when McConnell is likely poised to take over as Senate Majority Leader, it's worth taking a moment to acknowledge his political acumen. Not acumen in winning reelection, but acumen in masterminding the Republican comeback after the huge Democratic wave elections in 2006 and 2008. His master plan was simple — hang together and say no. And, by and large, it worked. McConnell is not the most charismatic politician of our time, but he is arguably the sharpest mind in contemporary politics on a strategic level.
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:
"Reporters underestimate how powerful the calendar is," says Jim Manley, the former communications director for Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader. "Say you want to break a filibuster. On Monday, you file cloture on a motion to proceed for a vote on Wednesday. Assuming you get it, your opponents are allowed 30 hours of debate post-cloture on the motion to proceed. That takes you to Friday, and doesn't cover amendments. The following Monday you file cloture on the bill itself, vote Wednesday, then 30 more hours of debate, and suddenly two weeks have gone by, for something that's not even controversial." All of this has slowed Senate business to a crawl.
"We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals," McConnell says. "Because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan' tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there's a broad agreement that that's the way forward."
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 been ugly. But in most voters' mind, the ugliness has attached to Obama and, by extension, Democrats. It was a very counterintuitive strategy, but it was well-grounded in the best political science available. And it worked.