Thursday, November 08, 2012

Obama wins big, McConnell goes small

By J. Kingston Pierce

One of the things that struck me on Tuesday night, after U.S. TV networks declared that Democrat Barack Obama had been re-elected as the 44th president of the United States, was the pettiness of the response to that history-making event by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).

Rather than being gracious in defeat, and acknowledging that Republicans had received a thrashing at the polls -- not only losing the presidency, but failing (as a result of several poor and alienating candidates) to win back control of the U.S. Senate -- McConnell chose once more to snub this democratically elected leader he had previously committed his party's machinery to driving out of the White House after a single term.

After briefly and bloodlessly congratulating Obama on his victory, McConnell opined in an official statement:

The American people did two things: They gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve during his first four years in office, and they preserved Republican control of the House of Representatives.

The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term, they have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control.

Now it's time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office.

To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we'll be there to meet him half way.

What a small man is Mitch McConnell, what a boorish man. Recognizing that he will have to run for his seat again in 2014, and perhaps fearing that the hateful Tea Partiers -- who have already taken down other once-influential Republicans (among them Delaware's Mike Castle and Indiana's Richard Lugar) -- might remorselessly cut his head off, too, if he doesn’t further burnish his right-wing ideologue creds, McConnell took the low road last evening. No doubt, he and his Republican henchmen are currently scheming to keep America's political system in gridlock -- as they've been doing ever since the 2010 elections, despite the crying needs of the public for new jobs-creation programs and fiscal common sense.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if the next thing McConnell says is that President Obama didn't win a mandate for change with this election. It's the same sort of thing Republicans always claim when a Democrat wins the White House; in fact, there are already conservatives spreading this message to the media.

Now, a case could certainly be made that McConnell and others are correct in dismissing the notion of a mandate. As Ed Kilgore observed yesterday in his Washington Monthly blog, "the 'mandate' talk is in general a myth, and sometimes a destructive myth. Voters pull the lever for candidates, not agendas, and this year, at least, they largely voted for parties, not candidates."

But then, what was the significance of Tuesday's nation-wide elections? It may have been less about handing Obama a mandate to make more sweeping changes and more about voters doing two other things: (1) reaffirming their faith in his leadership, and (2) slapping down Republicans for their obstructionist behavior over the last two years as well as their destructive policy proposals in this election cycle. Here's Kilgore again:

Forget about "mandates" for a moment and just think about the practical consequences of Obama's re-election, particularly since there will still be a Democratic Senate. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 will be implemented (with some obstruction from Republican-controlled states, to be sure, but implemented nonetheless), with its most important provisions kicking in prior to the 2014 midterm elections. Obama will also instantly possess superior leverage on the "fiscal cliff" issues that reflect the two parties' most fundamental differences on taxes, spending, and the very role of government, for the simple reason that no "solution" can be reached without his and his party's consent, with inaction producing an outcome much closer to Democratic policy preferences.

That means Republicans are the ones, far more than Obama, who will have to decide what happens next. Do they want to commit themselves to a midterm referendum on Obamacare that means actually reversing existing health insurance coverage for 40 or 50 million Americans? Is their opposition to high-end tax increases (reiterated by John Boehner just last night) so fanatical that they will reject any fiscal compromises no matter what happens, knowing that high-end taxes will in fact go up if they don't bend? 

In a post yesterday morning, The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn picked up on that latter point about Republican responsibilities in the forthcoming Congress, and how the president has a stronger hand now in dealing with recalcitrant right-wingers:

But what about the next four years? Doesn't Obama still need a governing plan? Sure. And if Obama has been relatively silent lately on some urgent issues -- chief among them, climate change -- he's been quite clear when it comes to economic policy. He's produced plans for strengthening the recovery. He's laid out principles for reducing the deficit: Relatively modest reductions in spending coupled with higher taxes on the wealthy. And with the coming debate over the spending sequester and expiration of the Bush tax cuts, both set for January 2013, Obama will get a chance to apply those principles.

The stakes in this fight are large: Depending on the terms, they will define the scope of the federal government for at least a generation to come. And, unlike in recent fiscal debates, Obama should have leverage -- more, perhaps, than at any time since the earliest days of his presidency. He can hold out in the debate over the sequester and Bush tax cuts, because the default action -- doing nothing -- is far worse for Republicans than it is for him. And with the newly elected Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren joining the re-elected Sherrod Brown and Sheldon Whitehouse in the Senate, Obama should have a more unified and incrementally more liberal congressional party behind him. (Hopefully they will push Obama, even as they get his back.)

How this plays out depends a great deal on the Republicans, of course. At least since early 2010, after the bruising fight over health care, Obama has been predicting that the Republicans would not become a responsible governing party until they experienced the consequences of extremism. Now that has happened. Republicans effectively ceded winnable Senate seats by nominating far-right candidates. And they lost a potentially winnable presidential election by nominating a candidate who ran on the Paul Ryan budget and even named Ryan as his running mate.

Maybe some moderates will react to Tuesday's GOP debacle by breaking with the Tea Party, and reaching out to Obama. Or maybe they will be too scared of reprisals from the right wing, as they have ever since Obama took office. I have no idea. But, whatever happens over the next four years, Obama's re-election guarantees that the laws passed during his first term stay on the books. That instantly makes him one of the most accomplished presidents of modern times. Already Obama and his allies have shaped this country in ways that will last for generations -- making life more secure, and creating new opportunities, for tens of millions of Americans.

My guess is that cranky old McConnell hopes the Republicans in Boehner's dysfunctional and do-nothing House majority will balk at the Obama administration's every effort to legislate and compromise, so he himself won't have to do all the dirty road-blocking work and therefore endure not only the president's arm twisting but also that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada).

However, with Obama no longer having to face re-election, and with Republican extremists having made McConnell's job significantly more difficult, the minority leader isn't in a strong position to make demands on this newly re-energized White House. Especially if, as anticipated, Tuesday's GOP disaster leads to a blood bath within the party.

Sometimes you don't need a mandate for change. Sometimes all you need is the opposition to be petty and out of step.

McConnell fits that bill.

(Cross-posted at Limbo.)

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