If Mitch McConnell Were a Democrat...
Regular readers of mine may know of my grudging awe of Mitch McConnell and his masterful use of political power. Early in my political career, I asked my boss who was best at the game of politics, and I was promptly told to watch Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky very closely. Always on message, unbending when he knows he has the political advantage, able to hold together coalitions, and yet able to cut deals when there is no other choice—I may be in the minority, but I think he’s the most talented politician of his generation.
So when my own mother (Hi Mom!) asked me to write a post about what Mitch McConnell would do if he were a Democrat, I gladly accepted. So here, in just a few short paragraphs, is what I imagine he would do.
But first, let me caution this: a lot of what you find below wouldn’t exactly “work” in the sense that Democratic voters need an unusual amount of motivation and positivity before they get involved, and Republicans mobilize from the sheer fact of not being 100% in power. That aside, here’s how I think someone like Mitch McConnell would approach being in the extreme minority on the Democratic side.
Assert what the American people want and never budge. McConnell’s messaging style is very simple: he takes positions and then says that everyone holds these positions. “The America people don’t want tax increases.” “Obamacare has been a disaster and the American people want it repealed.” “Americans are sick and tired of all the regulation and red tape.” There is no sense there are winners and losers, unless those winners happen to be the bad guys like terrorists and whoever the political punching bag of the moment is. Take an advantageous position and never, ever move.
Be willing to hurt other people’s constituents (and sometimes even your own) to win political battles. This is the big difference between Congressional Republicans and Democrats. Democrats actually care about people getting their Social Security checks, about being able to afford healthcare, etc. Congressional Republicans care to the degree that it will get them in big trouble (such as shutting down the entire federal government), but they generally don’t believe in the federal government helping people who aren’t their political allies. When Republicans come looking for cover and votes to replace Obamacare or fix the VA, you have to say you want something impossibly in your favor. That’s way harder than you think, especially when the letters from your constituents start pouring in and you genuinely want to help people.
Ignore polling on the issues and “popular opinion”. This one is critical. Polls make the American voter look like she favors universal background checks for firearms, wants to fix Obamacare, and that she wants big money out of politics. In reality, the American voter is a jumble of contradictions more prone to tribalism and myopia than any kind of reasoned policy debate. Just look at all the Trump voters hoping he doesn’t repeal Obamacare, even though it was one of his main policy promises. A Democratic McConnell would use every vote to divide and depress the Republican base. That would be the only aim.
Be prepared to be utterly despised by most of the country. Mitch McConnell isn’t exactly an unpopular politician relative to the curve, but most of America (insofar as they think about him) thinks he represents that kind of Machiavellian, end-justify-the-means politics that people claim to hate. But again, if voters really do hate McConnell’s tactics, they have a funny way of showing it. McConnell turns out his people and keep his opponents’ people at home. Popularity, legacy, higher dreams and aspirations—they have no place in this strategy.
Give nothing to people who don’t vote. Congressional Republicans don’t hand out favors to people who don’t vote. A Democratic McConnell wouldn’t spend a single ounce of political capital on people who sit out elections. If college kids want cheaper tuition, they have to show up. If social reformers want to get money out of politics, they have to show up. If the homeless want better shelters, they have to show up. An NRA voter shows up every time. That’s who you hand the goodies to. You are a voice for the people who have the loudest voices already.
Again, I hope you can see why people who want Democrats to “get tough” like Congressional Republicans face a very difficult set of choices. You really have to start seeing politics as a means of taking and maintaining power. Your policy goals are only there to further your power. There are no “brave” or “courageous” votes. You are there to represent that 25% of America that bothered to vote for your party and prevent the other 75% from getting a lick in.
My father always said that Democrats are 90% policy and 10% politics, while Republicans are 90% politics and 10% policy. The kind of ratio you decide for yourself locks you into your level of effectiveness, but it can also limit your ability to be the kind of public servant you hoped to be.