Mitch McConnell and the One-Term President

Glenn Kessler smacks Democrats on the wrists for their Delorean-ization of a famous Mitch McConnell quote. “When I first came into office,” says the president, “the head of the Senate Republicans said, ‘my number one priority is making sure president Obama’s a one-term president.’” But McConnell said that in October 2010, not January 2009. Two Pinnochios! “Perhaps,” writes Kessler, “in Obama’s memory, McConnell was always uncooperative.”

Let’s agree that the Democrats shouldn’t move the date of the McConnell quote. It’s lazy. It’s a zombie remainder from their pre-2010 election rhetoric. But they’re substantively right about the McConnell strategy. Just as they did in 1993, the Republicans of 2009 began the Obama presidency by trying to deny him a “bipartisan” label. All it took was walking away from bills. McConnell explained this (again, after the election) to Josh Green.

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

There’s some sophisticated political science on display. The University of Maryland academic Frances Lee has looked at the polarizing effect that hits a bill or an idea when one party walks away from it. Ezra Klein summarized her work earlier this year, pointing to the Democrats “just say no” strategy on Social Security reform in 2005, for example. “The President’s party can’t win unless the other party loses,” wrote Klein, “and both parties know it. This, Lee decided, is the true nature of our political system.

Democrats lie when they pretend this McConnell line greeted Obama on day one. But their history is right. Republicans realized that it was better for them, in the long run, if they denied Democrats votes on key legislation and slowed down the bills. They’d only lose in the long run if they lost the 2012 election, and they missed a chance to overturn those bills. Republicans know this. That was the bet, and that’s what’s at stake.