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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prepares to put on his face mask as he leaves the Capitol on April 20.
He walks in darkness.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Inc via Getty Images

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Mitch McConnell is gaslighting Democrats (again)

He is framing necessary stimulus measures as concessions. Democrats should call his bluff.

There is no political debate in the US more important right now than the fight over how the federal government should spend to help the economy recover.

Currently, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is setting the pace of stimulus and the terms of the debate. Democrats are being baited into negotiating “victories” that consist of measures every reasonable economist agrees is necessary. Efforts to secure even those basic measures are being denounced as hostage-taking, and Democrats in the House, forever attendant to their skittish purple-district “moderates,” have proven typically easy to scare. “We’re terrified that we’ll look like obstructionists,” one Democratic Senate aide told Politico reporter Michael Grunwald.

The fear, like most Democratic fears, is overblown. There is an enormous amount of bluffing going on among Republicans, who need stimulus measures just as much as Democrats. Sooner or later, if Democrats don’t want to get steamrolled, played, and blamed for the next six months, they are going to have to call some of those bluffs.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer need to take a tougher stance.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Aid for hospitals is not some Democratic wish-list item

At Slate, Jordan Weissmann captures the sense of dismay with which the left greeted the phase 4 (or is it 3.5?) stimulus passed last week.

The Paycheck Protection Program, the primary vehicle for getting money to struggling small businesses, had run out of money (after being poorly administered). Republicans needed it renewed; it was their headline stimulus achievement.

Democrats had leverage. They used it to “win” more money for hospitals and coronavirus testing. Having done so, they had none left over to win funds for cash-strapped states, help for the US Post Office, or any number of progressive priorities.

As Weissmann says, “what’s frustrating about this deal is that it seemingly consists of things any rational person should want.” Aid for hospitals and ramped-up testing are obvious, glaring national needs. Why on earth should they be something Democrats push for and Republicans resist?

Republicans know such aid is necessary just as well as Democrats. They say in the press that these are concessions, things they are giving up, but why should anyone else adopt that absurd framing?

By theatrically “conceding” money for hospitals, Republicans get the optics of a bipartisan achievement while ensuring that they define the limits of the possible.

Now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is saying that it wasn’t a concession at all to give up funding for states, that governors are just being “impatient,” and that the next stimulus bill will contain state and local aid “in a big way.” She envisions a thoughtful, phased approach, based on demonstrated need. But there’s little reason to think Republicans will cooperate.

Think back to the debt ceiling fight of 2011. Raising the debt ceiling was also something every independent analyst agreed was necessary to keep the economy healthy. But Republicans framed it as a Democratic ask, something for which they could extract enormous concessions. They were entirely willing to gamble with the economy.

With each successive stimulus bill in the coronavirus crisis, there will be a little less fear and urgency within the GOP caucus and Democrats will have a little less leverage. Republicans dragging their feet, treating obvious necessities as concessions, prevents any true progressive priorities — expanded health care, paid sick leave, higher wages, green infrastructure investment, postal banking — from entering the conversation. Republicans define the playing field, and Democrats dutifully play on it.

Somewhat physically distanced negotiating in the Capitol hallway, between Pelosi and Mitch McConnell.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

McConnell is gaslighting

McConnell is leading the GOP stimulus messaging effort, which consequently consists mostly of gaslighting. It seems to be the role for which he was born.

Anyone who wants to understand McConnell should read Jane Mayer’s extraordinary profile in the latest New Yorker and Alec MacGillis’s 2014 biography, The Cynic. Both are in-depth examinations that find very little depth in their subject. Meyer writes that the introverted McConnell got “hooked” on “the respect that comes with holding elected office” while he was still in school. (He was student council president.) He set out in pursuit of power and has been pursuing it single-mindedly ever since.

That’s the beginning and end of it. There are no consistent ideological principles, conflicted motivations, or lingering reservations. McConnell says and does whatever is necessary to secure power for the conservative coalition he helps lead, especially the big-money donors.

When Democrats pushed for state aid and McConnell suggested that it was a “blue state bailout,” an attempt to rescue fiscally irresponsible blue-state governors who had let their pension obligations get too large, he knew full well that it was bullshit. There is no moral hazard in a pandemic. There’s no point means testing states. It’s not a reward to states to bolster their budgets when consumers are literally being told by the government to stay home. It’s one reason the federal government exists.

And red states need money too — there are, after all, red-state governors pleading for help.

It makes no sense, but McConnell’s not trying to make sense. He’s just trying to put Dems on the defensive and force them to fight for the basics. He wants to frame state aid as a concession to Democrats and send a signal to the right-wing base that Democrats are up to something shady. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about pension obligations. This is a 1,000 percent cynical maneuver. (Now Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has picked up this nonsense and run with it.)

The same goes for McConnell’s sudden concern that stimulus spending might raise the deficit too much.

Oh, please.

More than almost any other purported GOP principle, deficit concern comes and goes depending on the party’s immediate interests. It was nowhere to be found in 2017 when McConnell’s own Congress passed a giant tax cut for corporations that will add $2.6 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years. It was nowhere to be found when Trump ran up the deficit, or when George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan ran up the deficit.

“The deficit” is a way for conservatives and centrists to fight against social spending, in almost all cases.

In this case, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews argues, it is particularly ludicrous. There is little credible economic justification for avoiding deficit spending in the first place, but even the most dedicated deficit scold accepts that stimulative federal spending is appropriate during a historic demand-side recession in which a substantial fraction of the economy’s resources have been deliberately idled. There is no conceivable economic circumstance in which deficit spending could be more obviously justified. Growth is the only way forward; austerity will make the recession into a depression.

McConnell knows this as well as anyone. He doesn’t care about the deficit either. He’s just trying to make it look like any spending he signs on to is a magnanimous concession. He’s getting the deficit story into the media so that conservative Democrats — the suckers who actually believe the deficit myths — will start getting gun-shy, pushing to limit spending from within the caucus, doing McConnell’s work for him.

And he’s setting up the next confrontation. When the crisis passes, Republicans will use the deficit they created as an excuse to attack spending on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

If Joe Biden wins the 2020 presidential election but Republicans keep the Senate — a not-unlikely outcome — McConnell will immediately block further meaningful stimulus. Just as he blocked every bit of Obama stimulus that he could to hurt Obama, he will the same to Biden. And he will use deficit concern as his cover story.

McConnell wants to trade state and local aid for corporate protections

On Monday, McConnell showed his hand. He will demand that the next stimulus bill include liability protections for business owners that reopen after (or, if their governors allow it, during) the pandemic.

Protecting bosses from lawsuits, allowing them to put front-line workers in danger without fear of repercussion, really is a wish-list item — from a corporate wish list. It is nakedly partisan in a way state and local aid is not.

Nonetheless, as Bloomberg reporter Steven Dennis says, McConnell is setting himself up for a trade: aid to states in exchange for liability protections.

It would be utterly bananas for Democrats to accept these terms. State and local aid is a necessity and something Republicans are going to sign off on eventually, unless they want to answer for a procession of laid-off red-state teachers and firefighters.

But protecting corporate executives from worker lawsuits is just a crude bit of corruption, nothing Democrats would ever agree to in normal circumstances. It’s not a fair trade; it’s McConnell manipulating the playing field, trying to get something for his donors in exchange for something he would have to do anyway.

When it comes to McConnell, the most cynical interpretation is usually the correct one. Whatever words may be coming out of his mouth, what he is doing it trying to maximize partisan advantage.

McConnell will opt for maximal partisan warfare; that’s what has worked for him

Many people (myself included) have pointed out that it is in the best interests of Republicans, especially Trump, to maximize stimulus spending. The faster they put a floor beneath the cratering economy and begin building it back up, the better for Trump’s electoral prospects. All things being equal, a depression ravaging the country is not going to help the incumbent.

Nonetheless, for the last 15 years, McConnell has heard pundits tell him that it’s risky to obstruct too much, attack too hard, violate norms too flagrantly, or act too openly against the national interest for partisan gain. Pundits wring their hands endlessly about such things.

Democrats have heard and internalized those messages. They worry about how they look to the media and political class. But McConnell has completely ignored them, and it has redounded to his benefit again and again.

When he refused to hold confirmation hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, everyone in the political ecosystem (outside of conservative media) warned him of the dangers, the grave risk to comity and tradition and institutional integrity. He blew them all off. For his troubles, he got Brett Kavanaugh.

(Last month, McConnell said that he would happily hold a confirmation vote on a Trump Supreme Court nominee, even in the last year of a Trump presidency. Critics accused him of hypocrisy. He didn’t care.)

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Remember this guy?
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

McConnell used the filibuster to block everything Obama tried, and then when Democrats killed the judicial filibuster, he used that to pack the federal bench, winning on both sides. He bottled up bills, worked to open up politics to unlimited dark money, and presided over a farcical, witness-free show trial of an impeached Donald Trump.

And it keeps working. Leaning into ruthless power politics in the face of elite media and political opinion won Republicans a fateful midterm landslide in 2010. It gave them the Senate in 2014, Trump in 2016, a giant tax cut in 2017, and hundreds of right-wing federal judges, ongoing.

Ignoring critics — not just ignoring them, but smirking at them, placidly thumbing his nose at them — has proven wildly successful for McConnell.

The maximal-partisan-warfare approach for McConnell going forward would be to keep stimulus spending just high enough to prevent a total crash, channel as much of it as possible to GOP constituencies, block attempts to secure fair access to voting, block any funding of progressive priorities or Dem-aligned industries (like clean energy), relentlessly attack Democrats for obstructionism, and then try to squeeze out another narrow, Electoral College-based victory in November.

That is, from the point of view of decency or good government, the worst thing that McConnell could do. And it also seems highly risky — if the economy suffers too much, Republicans could pay for it in November.

But McConnell has made a career out of betting on the worst thing and winning. There’s every reason to believe he will continue.

Democrats must learn to use their leverage

At every stage of the stimulus negotiations, McConnell is going to push for partisan advantage, defining basic recovery policies as Democratic so that he can limit discussion and prevent progressive priorities from being heard.

The only way Democrats are going to secure those priorities is to push back.

To do that, they need to think like McConnell. They need to realize that no amount of words — no op-eds, sharp comments on Meet the Press, eloquent arguments, or thoughtful proposals — will make any difference. There’s now a library’s worth of essays from non-conservatives about how America “must” meet this crisis, but all that “must” adds up to nothing in the absence of power.

McConnell doesn’t care about Democrats’ opinions, or Washington opinion, or even popular opinion. He is fighting for conservatives, and through right-wing media, he has their unstinting support. All he cares about is vote counts.

The only real power Democrats have, their only true leverage, is in their votes. Specifically, they can withhold them. No bill can pass the Democratic House unless Democrats vote for it.

It is Democrats’ choice to make state and local aid their baseline demand, thereby setting themselves up to declare victory if that necessary and inevitable policy is passed. They could choose to demand more, to demand something as ostentatiously in the interests of workers as McConnell’s liability shield is in the interests of executives.

They could demand universal access to postage-paid mail-in ballots, to ensure a free and fair election in November. (And they could pay for electric mail trucks to deliver those ballots.) They could demand more money for unemployment programs and ongoing direct payments to all families, of the sort that went out with the first stimulus bill, only bigger, ongoing, and better administered. They could demand universal paid sick leave or a better program to cover small-business payrolls or a multi-trillion-dollar green infrastructure package.

That’s what Joe Biden, sounding newly fiery, says he wants: a stimulus plan “a hell of a lot bigger” than the $2 trillion CARES Act. He wants more forward-looking investments that include, uh, “dealing with environmental things that create good-paying jobs.”

Biden appears sober, brightly lit by stage lights, in a dark suit and red tie. He stands at a podium in front of a row of US flags.
Would Biden hold the line?
Michael Brochstein/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

But talk is cheap. If Democrats really want to fight, they will have to obstruct — to take hostages, in the argot. They will have to show that they are willing to withhold their votes if they don’t get what they want. When they do so, or even threaten to do so, McConnell and Trump will attack them and the political media will be filled with pundit hand-wringing about the risks.

Again, Democrats should do what McConnell does: ignore the doubters and scolds. Stay focused on objectives. Treat political media like a game; say what needs saying to win the next news cycle. It is fluff, vapor, to be gone and replaced with some other story within 48 hours. Only legislative outcomes matter.

Democrats don’t like this kind of power politics. They are accustomed to trying to win the approval of referees, trying to get points for being reasonable and responsible and open to compromise. They are so accustomed to it that they haven’t noticed there are no refs anymore. The pundits and talking heads they fear have no power. There’s no one to judge their arguments superior or award them a sportsmanship trophy.

There is only power; there are only outcomes. Behind all the rhetoric, Democrats have one real point of leverage: they can vote for or against. It gives them some power if they are willing to use it.

McConnell will do and say whatever is necessary to serve his donors. He is willing to risk his political future on it. Democrats should be just as ruthless and unromantic in their service of the public interest.

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