But at a time when McConnell is likely poised to take over as Senate Majority Leader, it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge his political acumen. Not acumen in winning reelection, but acumen in masterminding the Republican comeback after the huge Democratic wave elections in 2006 and 2008. His master plan was simple — hang together and say no. And, by and large, it worked. McConnell is not the most charismatic politician of our time, but he is arguably the sharpest mind in contemporary politics on a strategic level.
To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked. Six years into the affair, we now take it for granted that nothing will pass on a bipartisan basis, no appointment will go through smoothly, and everything the administration tries to get done will take the form of a controversial use of executive power.
It’s been ugly. But in most voters’ mind, the ugliness has attached to Obama and, by extension, Democrats. It was a very counterintuitive strategy, but it was well-grounded in the best political science available. And it worked.
Most political coverage is premised on some potentially noble lies about how the public will punish politicians who subvert basic institutional norms or prevent popular things from being done. McConnell’s evil genius is to see that it’s all nonsense. The public generally doesn’t pay attention to the details of political squabbles. For all intents and purposes nobody in Congress pays a real price for obstructionism; even if the popularity of the party is dragged down it doesn’t affect the election chances of the vast majority of members. By the same token, Republican statehouses can refuse the Medicaid expansion and Obama will get more blame than the Republicans who turn it down, and so on. This cold strategic logic presents a serious problem because the structure of American government requires certain norms of comity to function in most circumstances — we’re about to get a lot of grim lessons about the superiority of parliamentary systems that don’t massively dilute and misallocate accountability — but this isn’t McConnell’s problem.