Politics are not policy

I find Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fascinating. He is far from being an archetypal politician, as he does not have much charisma and shies away from the spotlight. However, his political strategy of “just say no” to the Obama agenda and his ability to unite Republicans in the Senate in opposition to the president’s agenda have earned him recognition from some in the political science and pundit communities as being a pragmatic and effective leader.

Political journalist Matthew Yglesias hailed McConnell as being potentially “the greatest strategist in contemporary politics” because of his ability to unite Republicans in the Senate and dispel any illusions that bipartisan progress was being made. Ezra Klein agreed, arguing that this made the Democrats look like ideologues who were trying to shove their legislative agenda down the unreceptive throat of America.

McConnell’s political strategy for the last six years has been just that: a political strategy, not a policy strategy. It will be interesting if McConnell can translate this success in his stated political goals to policy success going forward.

In a speech following the Republican takeover of the Senate on Tuesday night, a visibly joyful McConnell hailed the end of “the experiment in big government” but didn’t set forth a clear legislative agenda. “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict,” he stated reassuringly.

However, to expect Democrats to cooperate at this point with Republican majorities in the Senate and House seems naïve and hypocritical. What is stopping Democrats from using parliamentary procedure tricks and President Obama’s veto power to participate in the same obstructionist tactics that McConnell has been leading, and advocating for, during the last six years?

Mitch McConnell has created a lose-lose scenario for his Democratic opponents and for America. On one hand, Democrats can cooperate with Republican majorities in the House and Senate and be perceived as weak or unprincipled. On the other hand, Democrats can participate in the same obstructionist tactics mastered by Republicans continuing the legislative freeze and driving the nation toward more credit downgrades and budget crises.

McConnell seems to assume that Democrats will take the high ground and compromise with the now-majority Republicans, but he has set a dangerous precedent in the past six years and will not be starting his tenure as Senate majority leader with much good faith from his Democratic opponents.