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.”
So, even if House Republicans live up to the “Pledge to America” they released in September and cut domestic discretionary spending next year to 2008 levels, those cuts have no chance of passing the Senate. Attempts to undo the health care law will be limited, at best, to defunding the regulatory apparatus behind the law—and those efforts will still be vulnerable to a presidential veto. Agreements on tax cuts and any entitlement reforms must be bipartisan, giving Obama some credit and bowing in some cases to his ideology—a surefire tea party trip wire.
To tea party activists, this may all sound like exactly the kind of Washington minimalism that drove them to rebel in the first place, and to find their voice in the anti-elite campaigns of Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Joe Miller in Alaska, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and John Raese in West Virginia. Some or all of these candidates will arrive in Washington as senators, and it’s to imagine that they will allow their anti-establishment impulses to be tamed.
But McConnell and Kyl foresee no difficulties keeping the larger GOP contingent together. “This is the kind of problem you’d like to have,” Kyl said. “I don’t buy the notion we are going to be all that fractured.” For his part, McConnell says he’ll be happy to be rid of the days of a 41-seat minority where there is no margin for error in blocking legislation and “where every man is a king and every woman is a queen.”
In one sign of conditional unity, Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who backed many tea party candidates in open defiance of McConnell and other GOP leaders, says he isn’t spoiling for a leadership fight. But note the qualification. “I have no intention of challenging the leadership,” DeMint told National Journal. “What I have done over the last year has ruffled a lot of feathers in our conference. The chance of me getting the votes is not realistic at this point.” But DeMint says that Senate Republicans must change the way they approach spending and do it soon, or tea party activists will lose faith and rebel even more.
“We have to understand, this is not so much a Republican victory.… I see it more as a realignment of American politics,” DeMint said. “We’re going to have more Republicans, and the composition is going to be more of a limited-government idea. The biggest challenge we have is to change the idea that senators are here to do what is best for their states, to get all they can for their states and the interests operating in their states.”
And this is where DeMint is spoiling for a confrontation. He wants Republicans to cut spending no matter what effect those reductions have on their home-state constituents. He says this would be a “definitional” culture shift among Republicans, and he considers the pledge made by all the Senate GOP candidates—including relative moderates such as Mark Kirk of Illinois and Carly Fiorina of California—to adopt the no-earmarks policy the beginning of that change. DeMint sees earmarks as a symptom of a deeper problem: the structural bias for more discretionary spending and the clout that comes with it.
To reverse that trend, DeMint wants to upend generations of bipartisan logrolling. What’s his ask? That GOP leaders permanently exclude themselves from the Appropriations Committee, which allocates non-entitlement spending. If that rule had been in place during this Congress, three GOP leaders would have been kicked off Appropriations—McConnell, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. “If we are going to cut spending, we have to take the power away from those responsible for spending,” DeMint says. “We have to say no to a power base that can be corrupting over time, not in the sense of anything criminal, but in the sense that your focus is spending and not cutting.”
McConnell was icily noncommittal about DeMint’s idea: “We will debate any rule changes brought before the conference.” Kyl is downright opposed. “That suggests there’s something wrong with [the current system],” he said. DeMint’s point is that there is, in fact, something wrong with the current system. Thus, Senate Republicans may find themselves divided over their own rules even before they begin to grapple with Obama over spending, tax rates, or entitlements.
When McConnell started reviewing the history of Congresses that won big against unpopular presidents but saw those gains slip away, he didn’t find any notations about keeping grateful constituents from their federal largesse. But times are changing, and McConnell may find that as he tries to learn from the past, his most impassioned new colleagues instead want to renounce and transcend it.
This article appears in the October 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.