Late to the Party: Mitch McConnell Did Not Come Early to Ending the Shutdown

The senator deserves credit for helping to negotiate an end to the standoff — and also bears some responsibility for getting us there.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Add to Briefcase
Lucia Graves
Oct. 18, 2013, 9:22 a.m.

Robert Costa of Na­tion­al Re­view, who won praise for his cov­er­age of the fisc­al show­down these past few weeks, has a new in­ter­view out with Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell. In it Mc­Con­nell offered up an as­sess­ment of where Re­pub­lic­ans went wrong in the shut­down stan­doff and seemed to sug­gest he was against the GOP’s de­fund­ing ef­forts all along.

“I can tell you when I knew that we’d end up here — Ju­ly,” Mc­Con­nell told Costa in the in­ter­view pub­lished Thursday. “We had ex­tens­ive dis­cus­sions in Ju­ly about how the de­fund strategy couldn’t pos­sibly suc­ceed.” It was a mat­ter of simple math, he said. There are only 46 Re­pub­lic­ans in the sen­ate, and when you add in the pres­id­ent, he knew a de­fund­ing ef­fort had no chance of suc­cess.

After the in­ter­view, Costa, who’s known for his un­der­stand­ing of and em­pathy for con­ser­vat­ives, tweeted of Mc­Con­nell:

He’s re­lieved the “quix­ot­ic” ef­fort to make have a big stan­doff is over, and he re­minds me he’s been throw­ing cold wa­ter on it since Ju­ly

— Robert Costa (@robert­cost­aNRO) Oc­to­ber 17, 2013

His­tory sug­gests oth­er­wise. As TPM‘s Sahil Kapur re­por­ted at the time, the Sen­ate minor­ity lead­er de­clined to take a po­s­i­tion when pressed by re­port­ers about con­ser­vat­ive ef­forts to block a gov­ern­ment-fund­ing res­ol­u­tion un­less Obama­care is de­fun­ded.

“We’ve had a lot of in­tern­al dis­cus­sions about the way for­ward this fall, on both the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion and ul­ti­mately the debt ceil­ing. And those dis­cus­sions con­tin­ue,” Mc­Con­nell said, ac­cord­ing to Kapur’s piece, pub­lished Ju­ly 30. “I know they’re go­ing on on the House side as well. There’s no par­tic­u­lar an­nounce­ment at this point, but you all are fa­mil­i­ar with the vari­ous points of view about how we might go for­ward later this year.”

We’ll have to take Mc­Con­nell at his word for what he did be­hind closed doors, but in not splash­ing cold wa­ter on the idea pub­licly, he helped cre­ate a va­cu­um in which the move­ment was al­lowed to flour­ish.

By Sept. 17 he still hadn’t taken a po­s­i­tion on a strategy for de­fund­ing Obama­care through the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion. As Jonath­an Strong re­por­ted in Na­tion­al Re­view, “aides to both Boehner and Mc­Con­nell ac­tu­ally in­ter­vened to en­sure that com­ments both of their bosses made did not ac­tu­ally amount to tak­ing a po­s­i­tion. In the res­ult­ing va­cu­um, the push to de­fund Obama­care con­tin­ued to gain mo­mentum. And when Can­tor fi­nally re­vealed the House lead­er­ship’s plan last week, it was too late — the seeds of dis­sent had already been planted.”

Polling might of­fer some in­sight in­to his change of heart. Mc­Con­nell was fa­cing a vari­ety of com­pet­ing pres­sures from the be­gin­ning, in­clud­ing heat from his 2014 GOP primary chal­lenger, Matt Bev­in, who called on him to sign a pledge vow­ing nev­er to sup­port a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion if it funds Obama­care. As the polit­ic­al dangers of in­cit­ing gov­ern­ment shut­down be­came in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent, that cal­cu­lus star­ted to look more and more off — and more and more like a polit­ic­al risk in a po­ten­tial gen­er­al-elec­tion cam­paign against Demo­crat Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes.

In his in­ter­view with Costa, Mc­Con­nell dis­missed the no­tion that his nav­ig­a­tion of the shut­down was driv­en by poll num­bers, call­ing that “the Moth­er Jones thes­is.” It’s not par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial to sug­gest politi­cians are mo­tiv­ated in part by poll num­bers, not in an elec­tion year. But to look at Mc­Con­nell’s ac­tions devoid of the lar­ger con­text misses the point. Re­pub­lic­ans have been ad­voc­at­ing grid­lock and host­age-tak­ing for years. In 2011, for in­stance, they took the debt ceil­ing host­age and won ma­jor policy con­ces­sions, though that likely had more to do with the fact that they’d won the 2010 elec­tion and thus its res­ult­ing man­date, as Ezra Klein re­por­ted in Wonk­book on Thursday. “Go­ing for­ward, Re­pub­lic­ans will be more afraid of this kind of brinks­man­ship,” Klein pre­dicted, “and Demo­crats will be far less afraid of it.”

In­deed, the most passed-around line from the in­ter­view with Costa un­der­scored Klein’s point. “We’re not go­ing to do this again in con­nec­tion with the debt ceil­ing or with a gov­ern­ment shut­down,” Mc­Con­nell said.

Mc­Con­nell de­serves cred­it for help­ing to broker a deal at the end, and more gen­er­ally, for his polit­ic­al savvy. But don’t let him re­write the his­tory books with how he thwarted the GOP’s big, dumb stan­doff idea. He didn’t come early to that party.

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