On TV yesterday, Mitch McConnell fashioned a noose for his own neck when he said: “There will not be another government shutdown. You can count on that.”
Oh dear. That pledge does not please the tea-party conservatives. How dare the top Senate Republican say that he refuses to wreak more havoc on the country! Doesn’t he realize that they want a leader who’s pro-havoc?
McConnell’s political predicament, back home in Kentucky, is Exhibit A in the Republican civil war. To nobody’s surprise, the tea-party faction – which ginned up the shutdown and plunged the GOP’s poll ratings to new historic lows – has not exhibited an ounce of humility; instead, it has vowed to purge the alleged Republican “squishes” who negotiated to reopen the government. The purge impulse starts with McConnell.
He was already being challenged from the right – tea-partyer Matt Bevin will try to take him down in a 2014 Senate Republican primary – but now the heat is even more intense, thanks to his “squish” behavior last week, and his blasphemous Sunday remarks on Face the Nation.
One conservative tea-party group, The Madison Project, which has endorsed Bevin, says that McConnell “knows nothing but capitulation.” Another, FreedomWorks, says that McConnell engineered “a complete surrender.” A redstate.com blogger, who works for the Madison group, writes of McConnell, “When you work harder to fight for the other side than for the Republican base, you ought to find another job.” And on Friday, the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed Bevin, because, in its words, McConnell “has a liberal record and refuses to fight for conservative principles.”
Only in today’s relentlessly rightward GOP would Mitch McConnell – with his 90 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union – be dismissed as a “liberal.” (Cue tea-party attacks on the ACU. Maybe the ACU should be purged, too.)
But what’s most interesting is the way McConnell has responded. Rather than pander to the party’s extremists, he’s essentially telling them to take a hike. From his Sunday gig: “One of my favorite old Kentucky sayings is, there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. The first kick of the mule occurred back in 1995 when the Republican House shut down the government (and the GOP paid the political price). Look, shutting down the government, in my view, is not conservative policy. I don’t think a two-week paid vacation for federal employees is conservative policy.”
He expressed the requisite hatred of Obamacare, and the requisite Republican desire to repeal it – “but that requires a Republican Senate and a different president. We have a math problem in the Senate in getting rid of Obamacare. It’s that, it’s the following math problem, 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans. We only control a portion of the government…We need to get rid of (the health reform law). And if the American people will give us a majority in the Senate and a new president, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
McConnell, translated: In the real world, you don’t sabotage the government and hurt the economy. What you do is, you get control of the government by actually winning elections.
In other words, he has rightly calculated that if he panders now to the tea-party right, he’ll wind up ceding the middle of the electorate to Democratic opponent Alison Grimes in the November ’14 election. And he thinks his party establishment infrastructure is strong enough to beat Bevin in the GOP primary anyway – as he essentially said yesterday: “I’m supported by Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey…I think (Bevin) is going to have a hard time convincing Kentucky primary voters that Mitch McConnell is some kind of liberal.”
Bevin and the tea-party right is trying to paint him as a capitulator, but McConnell sees himself as the grownup in the room (that’s his message to Kentucky middle-roaders). He’s calculating that, in a general election, pragmatic voters far outnumber the right-wing absolutists. Which is why, in an interview last week, he said this: “I’ve demonstrated, once again, that when the Congress is in gridlock and the country is at risk, I’m the guy who steps forward and tries to get us out of the ditch.”
Mitch McConnell, profile in courage, taking on the ditch dwellers…Perhaps this is the way that establishment Republicans can break the tea-party fever and pull their own party back from the precipice. Perhaps. But first, there will be blood.
Meanwhile, Chris Christie has surrendered in the fight against gay marriage. New Jersey’s highest court said Friday that ceremonies could begin today, and Christie – who had previously vowed to explore all legal oppositional avenues – is waving the white flag. From his statement:
“Chief Justice Rabner left no ambiguity about the unanimous court’s view on the ultimate decision in this matter when he wrote, ‘same-sex couples who cannot marry are not treated equally under the law today.’ Although the Governor strongly disagrees with the Court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the Court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law. The Governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his Administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
We’ll see whether religious conservatives, who vote heavily in the Iowa and South Carolina presidential contests, indulge their long memories and punish Christie in ’16 – for failing to shut down the Jersey government rather than comply with the rule of law.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1