Mitch McConnell continues to underestimate his caucus’ willingness to go sideways

As perhaps no one knows better these days than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

On Tuesday morning, Politico had a scoop: Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Chairman of the National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC), had produced a comprehensive document articulating a specific policy platform. It’s an interesting document, merging the feverish fights of culture warfare with traditional Republican economic policies. (Among other things, he advocates that those currently exempt from federal income tax pay something each year – an exemption that generally applies to low-income Americans who pay a higher proportion of their income in sale.) This includes things like building a wall on the border with Mexico — named after Donald Trump, naturally — with restrictions on raising the debt ceiling.

It’s also a Rick Scott campaign document. Scott told Politico it was not a function of his chairmanship of the NRSC and the document itself reinforces that. This drives people not to a GOP fundraising mechanism, but to a website paid for by Scott’s personal committee where one can donate to Scott’s campaign. That said, he caught the eye because of Scott’s stance. While telling Politico it was his own vision, he also insisted it was “important to tell people what we are going to do”. This ‘we are’ suggests that it is not just Scott presenting a Scottish view of the way forward, but rather that of his party.

The reason it is necessary to tell people what the party will do, of course, is that McConnell was so determined not to. This is not a commentary on the nature of Republican politics, a meta-analysis of the validity of what McConnell hopes to accomplish. Rather, it is the repeated and triumphant proclamation of McConnell himself: that American voters would find out what the Republicans would do with power once they gave them that power midterm. McConnell was repeatedly asked what the Senate GOP policy stance was and he repeatedly smiled and said something to the effect of “you’ll see.”

As Republican caucus leader in the Senate, he determined his team would fall short of the media’s demand for an articulated platform. The politics here are quite evident both outside and inside. From the inside, it avoids forcing McConnell to broker a deal between senators and Senate candidates willing to appeal to Trump’s far-right base with his more moderate core of allies. From the outside, Republicans are already well positioned for the midterm elections simply by historical patterns and McConnell has little interest in giving voters a reason not to vote for his party. Make midterms all about President Biden instead of a feverish culture fight that could alienate suburban voters.

In other words, McConnell created a vacuum. And – whoooosh – this is Rick Scott. The guy was on Twitter for a while on Tuesday morning, having decided to respond to the obvious demand for some sort of articulate platform. It probably got a lot of new signups to his mailing list and maybe a few campaign contributions… but it also sparked heated debate about precisely the controversial topics McConnell hoped to avoid.

It’s not the first time in recent months that McConnell has tried to force a position within his caucus that leaves room for grandstanding. In the wake of the 2020 election, McConnell tried to navigate Trump’s insistence on stealing the election by, at first, withholding judgment on the outcome until voters voted for the Electoral College on December 14. Immediately afterwards, however, he acknowledged Biden’s victory and sought to block his caucus from joining efforts to challenge the election results. Members of the House, being members of the House, pledged to challenge the vote count on January 6. McConnell lobbied to stop his team from doing the same.

In other words, McConnell created a vacuum. And – whoooosh – here comes Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Hawley moved first, announcing that he had no choice but to oppose the electoral votes cast by Pennsylvania for reasons. Then Cruz, who is never one to let a position slip, announced that he had assembled a number of colleagues who would together demand that a committee verify the vote in the “disputed” states, by which he meant the states that Trump had lost.

In the end, McConnell’s efforts to restrict the Senate prevented the chamber from the kind of protest that played out in the House, where most Republican representatives voted against validly casting electoral votes even after he It was obvious that they were allied on the issue with the insurgents who had briefly delayed this vote. But he couldn’t stop Hawley, Cruz and his allies from seizing the opportunity to garner praise from Trump and accolades from Trump supporters.

It is certainly the case that Trump is a guideline here. McConnell is trying to some extent to ensure that the Senate remains an establishment bulwark against Trumpism. Sometimes that means standing in the way of Trump’s blatantly toxic positions; sometimes that means trying to keep the two sides from coming into conflict. But the fundamental appeal of Trumpism for Republican politicians is that it is rewarded with a fervent pro-Trump base — a base that believes Trumpism is a fundamental aspect of public service. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma, where McConnell continues to choose to cooperate and continues to get burned by his caucus members who want the biggest payout.

McConnell may get lucky; this Rick Scott platform can simply be pushed into the background, only occasionally appearing in mid-range attack ads. Or he may be unlucky and see his caucus not only coalesce around an agenda, but one that McConnell himself probably wouldn’t have chosen. All because he tried to keep his team in alliance at a time when the rewards for doing so far outweighed the rewards for not doing so.


Washington

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