Cold Calculation

Mitch McConnell isn’t trying to avoid a shutdown. He’s trying to win the next election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell more than any other major politician today, embodies the permanent campaign mindset that holds such sway in Washington.

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Seven weeks after pledging to make Republicans in Congress look less “scary,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is just making them look rudderless. McConnell spent Tuesday scrambling to come up with a way to allow congressional Republicans to vent their opposition to President Obama’s executive order on immigration without shutting down the Department of Homeland Security. As it stands, DHS will be shuttered at midnight on Friday as a result of the Republicans’ demand that the agency’s funding be tied to gutting the immigration order, a demand that McConnell has been unable to get past a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

To avert a shutdown, McConnell proposed that Congress take two actions, passing legislation targeting the executive order while separately allowing funding for DHS. But that gambit drew criticism Tuesday from both camps. Even the Democrats who are skeptical of the executive order are demanding that Republicans pass the agency funding before immigration is taken up. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans see McConnell’s plan as giving Obama a pass on immigration since he can simply veto any legislation targeting his order and implement it with the money approved for DHS. “Cave, cave, cave,” one Republican lawmaker told National Review. “It would pass with unanimous Dem support and fractured GOP support in each house—not exactly what the base will want to see.”

What both sides are discovering now—if they didn’t anticipate it already—is what was really behind McConnell’s vow to make his party look less “scary.” When McConnell’s comments to the Washington Post’s Paul Kane were reported in early January, many in Washington hailed them as a real shift in mindset for McConnell, who had infamously said in late 2010, to justify his party’s obstructionism in the Senate, that the party’s “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”*

But his comments last month did not, in fact, represent a shift in mindset. McConnell, with his characteristic candor, made abundantly clear that he was urging a shift in tone but that his underlying mindset was not changing at all. The reason he wanted Republicans to look less “scary,” he told Kane, was simple: He wanted to “set the stage for a potential GOP presidential victory in 2016.” “I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome. I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority,” said McConnell. “There would be nothing frightening about adding a Republican president to that governing majority. I think that’s the single best thing we can do, is to not mess up the playing field, if you will, for whoever the nominee ultimately is.”

In other words, McConnell wanted the party to project a more reasonable image for a single reason: to improve its chances of winning in the next election cycle. Not in order to restore voters’ faith in Washington, or to tackle the nation’s biggest problems, or, heck, to burnish his own legacy with some major legislative accomplishments. No, his driving goal, now that he had finally become majority leader after 30 years in the Senate, was for his party to win the next election.

This, as I explained in the McConnell biography I wrote last year, is the key to understanding the inscrutable Kentuckian: He, more than any other major politician today, embodies the permanent campaign mindset that holds such sway in Washington, the notion that what matters is less what you do once you have won election than whether you and your party are in position to win the next time around. In the first six years of Obama’s tenure, McConnell calculated, shrewdly, that the way to set up Republicans for wins after 2008 was to relentlessly obstruct Obama, since voters would blame Washington dysfunction more on the party that held the White House, that had a greater philosophical stake in a functioning government, and whose leader had made grand promises to change the tenor in Washington. Sure, Republicans could have achieved more policy goals if they had negotiated with the Democrats on health care, financial reform, and other issues to pull legislation in a more conservative direction in exchange for some votes. But that, McConnell calculated, would have reduced the odds of success in the next election, which was what mattered most. As his ally in the Senate, Robert Bennett of Utah, told me of McConnell’s obstructionist approach to health care reform, “He said, ‘Our strategy is to delay this sucker as long as we possibly can, and the longer we delay it the worse the president looks: Why can’t he get it done?’ ”

That was McConnell’s strategy for winning elections when his party was in the Senate minority. But now that he is leading the majority, McConnell’s calculation has shifted to account for the fact that his party will likely be accorded more blame than before for Washington dysfunction. So the strategy for winning the next election has shifted from obstruction to appearing less “scary.” But what does it mean, under McConnell’s definition, to not be scary? It does not mean actually getting significant legislation passed or addressing major problems. It means, above all, avoiding government shutdowns, and so he will scramble all week to make sure that DHS stays open.

But he has shown no sign of taking on the underlying issue that has brought the country to this latest brink: a broken immigration system. That is hardly surprising, because McConnell has made plain in the past that this is an issue that he sees as distinctly unhelpful when it comes to winning elections. In 2007, when the Senate took up the immigration reform bill pushed by President George W. Bush—a more conservative approach than what Democrats are pushing today—McConnell, then already the Republican leader, was conspicuously absent from the debate. McConnell, who was up for re-election the following year in a state where anti-immigrant sentiment runs relatively high, waited until it was clear the bill was going to lack the necessary 60 votes before voting against it and did not even speak on it on the floor until its fate was known. Roll Call called him a “virtual no show” and conservative columnist Robert Novak called his performance a “truly major failure of leadership.”

McConnell voted against immigration reform again when it passed the Senate in 2013 (again, one year before he was up for re-election) and has not cited it as one of the few areas where he could foresee some consensus with the Obama administration. The irony, of course, is that many Republicans believe that comprehensive immigration reform would in fact help their party in 2016, by allaying the perception of the party as inimical to the interests of Hispanic voters. McConnell’s new proposal, after all, would result in the vast majority of congressional Republicans voting to torpedo an executive order that many Hispanics are hailing as a godsend (and that, for the time being, is now in limbo as a result of a legal challenge). “This is a short-term tack to get them out of a jam that they find themselves in, but the fact of the matter is that what he is doing is starting a full-on assault to stick it to the Hispanic community,” says Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Perhaps McConnell fears that many in his party would not even be able to reap those electoral rewards in 2016 because they would be eliminated before that in primary challenges hitting them for their pro–immigration reform votes. Or perhaps the many years of obstructionism have simply eroded his instinct for tackling big issues in a big way. (Once upon a time, he was very much in the mix on major legislation, from tobacco-farmer buyouts to election-machinery overhauls.)

Regardless, the leader of the Senate seems to have zero interest at the current pass besides keeping a government agency from shutting down and thereby hurting his party’s prospects in 2016. That may not be scary—but it is depressing.

*Update, Feb. 25, 2015: This post has been updated to include a missing word in McConnell’s 2010 quote about the party’s desire to make Obama a one-term president.