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What Is McConnell Thinking?

Jonathan Bernstein, like me, puzzles over the Senate republicans stunningly inept strategy to fight on financial reform:

I can think of three possibilities:

1.  It's part of a long-term strategy to waste Senate floor time, in order to reduce the capacity of the Senate to get anything done.  That does make some sense; eating up three days this week could, at least possibly, prevent some judicial nominee from being confirmed later this year.  On the other hand, the Democrats still have unused floor hours (Mondays, Fridays, nights, weekends), so they're not running up against any real limits yet.

2.  The Republicans are terrified of the talk show hosts and conservative bloggers, who are demanding maximal resistance to the dread socialist Kenyan Obama whether the resisance makes any sense or not.

3.  Mitch McConnell is actually an incompetent hack and has no idea what he's doing.

And the answer is...I don't know!

I don't think McConnell is incompetent. I think McConnell had a perfect strategy that worked beautifully as long as the right conditions held. The strategy was to convince his caucus to hold together and oppose Obama's agenda on everything, which would make the agenda less popular, run out the clock on what's sure to be the most liberal Congress in a long time, and set up the GOP for major gains in November.

The problem is that, after the passage of health care reform, some Republican Senators started getting antsy. Bob Corker publicly blasted McConnell's stone wall approach because it left the party out of the legislative loop. I'd surmise other Republicans privately agreed. Then financial regulation came down the pike. An extended filibuster might have given Republicans a chance to bleed public support for the law -- they could have gotten a lot of Wall Street money to support an ad campaign to go with it -- but they didn't have 41 Republicans willing to hold out that long. At this point, the next best strategy would have been to quickly cut a deal and avoid being painted as Wall Street lackeys. But McConnell decided to hold out as long as he could anyway, which was the worst of both worlds -- first they get hit as Wall Street lackeys, then they give Democrats a policy win.

McConnell tried to replicate his prior strategy even though it couldn't work. History is replete with figures like that -- they find an approach that works brilliantly, but they don't realize that it depends upon certain conditions holding true. When those conditions change, they don't know how to do anything else.