Tuesday’s elections seemed to reward bad legislative behavior by the Republican Party—and, in particular, the incoming Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. But even for McConnell, success came at a price.
When Obama first took office, back in 2009, McConnell settled on a strategy of absolute obstruction. Neither he nor his Republican colleagues would cooperate with the White House on legislation. McConnell wasn’t exactly subtle about this and, after Republicans made big gains in the 2010 midterms, he announced in a speech to the Heritage Foundation that his primary political goal was to make Obama a one-term president.
Those comments raised a ruckus, but the strategic logic was sound. The inability to pass legislation, McConnell understood, would anger voters. President Obama would take the blame, McConnell figured, because people would hold the president, not Congress, responsible for gridlock.
That's a fair interpretation of what happened on Tuesday. Voters were frustrated with Washington dysfunction—particularly, as my colleague John Judis points out, the inability to address stagnant middle class wages. But Obama and the Democrats had plenty of policy ideas and, arguably, many of them would have made a difference. McConnell and his allies, including House Speaker John Boehner, simply refused to pass them.
As Matt Yglesias wrote Wednesday at Vox, McConnell's "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."
Still, McConnell's strategy actually failed in two key respects. Republicans were able to stop Obama from legislating after those 2010 midterms. But, by that point, Obama had already passed major, sometimes historic pieces of legislation, including the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act. Cooperating with Obama would not have prevented these laws from passing, obviously. But, particularly with health care, it probably would have given Republicans leverage to shape the measures more to their liking.
That’s the first way McConnell’s strategy failed. And the second? Go back to that Heritage speech and listen closely to what McConnell identifies as his primary goal: It’s preventing Obama from winning reelection. That quite obviously didn’t happen. And that’s a big deal. Even without the ability to pass laws, Obama has been able to address issues like global warming and immigration with executive action. He’s also filled part of the judiciary and staffed federal agencies with lieutenants who share his priorities.
The ultimate impact of these actions depends on what happens in 2016. If Republicans manage to get control of the House and the Senate and the White House, they could undo some of what Obama and the Democrats have done over the last six years. But winning the presidency remains a demographic challenge for the Republicans and there are some changes even a unified Republican government couldn't make.
McConnell won a huge political victory on Tuesday. That doesn't mean he won big on policy, too.
Election coverage in The New Republic: