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After the Wave

Mitch McConnell wants to learn from history, but his new recruits will not be easily led.


Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a press conference.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

About the time predictions started to surface in Washington that Democrats might lose control of one or both houses of Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell began to research what happened to presidents who presided over a loss of Congress in their first midterm election.

It’s occurred three times in the past 100 years, and in each case the minority party that took control watched the supposedly vanquished president win reelection just two years later. First, Harry Truman in 1948 (after losing 55 House and 13 Senate seats in 1946); second, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 (after losing 18 House and two Senate seats in 1954, creating Democratic majorities that would last in the Senate until 1980 and in the House until 1994); and finally, Bill Clinton in 1996 (after losing 54 House and eight Senate seats in 1994).


McConnell spent some of the summer and all of the fall ruminating on what congressional Republicans must learn if they wish to avoid the fate of those temporarily victorious majorities. Two principal lessons emerged, he said: Manage expectations, and pursue an agenda that any future GOP nominee can embrace in 2012. The only problem is that both goals require consensus, and it’s hardly clear that he’ll have it in his chamber. With the infusion of tea party blood, it’s anybody’s guess whether the Republican Conference can be the careful, unified party that McConnell hopes for.

“Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful,” McConnell told National Journal in his first extensive interview about his aspirations for the Senate Republicans of the 112th Congress. “We need to work smarter than we did [in 1995], and not become the foil off which [President Obama] pivots.”

McConnell believes that the task will be easier if Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, becomes speaker. The two lawmakers talk almost daily, and their staffs know and trust one another. That tight working relationship is the polar opposite of the personal disdain that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich held for each another and inspired among their closest lieutenants. Many Republicans of that era complain that Dole’s presidential ambitions and his campaign complicated the party’s legislative maneuvering on issues such as taxes and spending, balanced budgets, and welfare. No such worries now.


McConnell and Boehner are creatures of Congress who are not driven by any desire to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

McConnell frets, however, about controlling expectations among tea party activists likely to want—and quite possibly demand—that bigger GOP numbers in Congress produce big things: a swift repeal of the health care reform law; a massive U-turn on federal spending; and immediate action to reduce the national debt. Tea party darling and likely freshman mover-and-shaker Marco Rubio of Florida, for instance, summed up the movement’s ax-wielding gusto in July: “Every day we postpone acting decisively to rein in wasteful spending and cut the debt, we pile even more on the backs of millions of young Americans.”

These are things that McConnell knows will be difficult to achieve in a divided government, particularly if Democrats maintain a narrow Senate majority. (Senior Senate GOP aides now privately joke that after two years of using the 60-vote filibuster threshold to stall the Obama agenda, their goals must now bow to the number 67—the votes needed to override an Obama veto.) “One of the things we will have to remind newcomers and those who have supported them is that even though we will have a larger Republican Conference, we do not control the government and cannot control the government when the president holds the veto pen,” McConnell said. “We need to have a humble, grateful response about this election,” he added, unexpectedly echoing comments Obama made to National Journal in an interview this week. McConnell had one other observation for his most-impatient colleagues: “Incidentally, there is no polling data that suggests [the voters] love us.”

Grounding expectations in that reality is something that McConnell says will require a good measure of “preaching and teaching.” McConnell’s No. 2 in the GOP leadership, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, agrees.


“Let’s assume, as I do, Republicans take the House,” Kyl said. “I assume House Republicans will be able to pass whatever they want. But when it comes over to the Senate, a lot of this will grind to a halt. You can’t blame Republicans for not passing legislation. We are going to have to manage that.”

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