The leathery visage of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell never fails to sadden and enrage me. McConnell has made it abundantly clear that his goal is not to help the economy or anything else; his overriding concern is making Barack Obama a one-term president. When he said Sunday that there will be no deal on raising the debt ceiling without substantial Medicare cuts, he made his motives clear again. Others have beaten me to the punch in calling this a hostage situation, and that’s precisely what it is.
My sadness and rage intensify when I stop to think that McConnell once worked for and now holds the seat of the great John Sherman Cooper. Who? A senator from Kentucky from the 1940s through the 1970s, Cooper was a liberal Republican: not just someone who was kind of liberal for a Republican, but a genuine liberal, and also a genuine Republican, at a time and from a place when and where it was possible to be both. Cooper hailed from southeastern Kentucky, an oasis of Republicanism in what was then an otherwise solidly Democratic state. Remember, in those days and in such places, Democratic meant segregationist, another thing the towering Cooper never was: As a Kentucky circuit judge after the war (he was among the soldiers who happened across Buchenwald) but before his Senate service, he empanelled black citizens as jurors—in 1946.
Are Democrats—and is the president—ready to do what it takes to defeat McConnell and his fellow Republicans in their effort to enact ruinous and unpopular changes to Medicare?
How emblematic it is of our benighted times that we’ve had to watch this decline and fall, from one of the noblest senators of his or maybe any era to this gastric partisan. But the real tragedy reposes in the fact that McConnell benefits in his way from the standard set by great senators like Cooper.
What do I mean by this? I mean that there was a period in the history of this republic, and of the world’s so-called greatest deliberative body, when senators really did, at some crucial point in deliberations, put their partisan differences aside and work out solutions to the country’s pressing problems. I don’t mean to over-glorify the past—always a temptation, and always misleading. The Senate has had its share of scoundrels and partisans and drunks since the beginning. But by and large, they did find ways of conducting the nation’s business. And I don’t secretly mean here that I pine for the time when moderate Republicans rolled over for liberal wish-list items back in the 1960s. Even the Social Security compromise of 1983, when Democrats accepted raising the retirement age and Republicans agreed to an increase in the Social Security payroll tax in order to preserve the entitlement for future generations, an accord signed into law by Ronald Reagan, represented a notch in the belt of good-faith compromise.
The Senate that was capable of an agreement like that still lodges itself in the minds of many, the high-pundit class to be sure but also senators themselves, who want to believe devoutly in the idea of both sides coming together to work out solutions to our problems. But the hard fact of our politics today is that one side isn’t playing. I suspect everyone knows this—the Republicans most of all, even though for obvious reasons they can’t say so. And yet, everyone wants to believe it’s still true.
McConnell benefits from the lingering good feeling that still permeates the institution in which he serves—because people insist on presuming that the leader of the minority party speaks in good faith. But there’s no good faith here.
The only question is whether the Democrats will accede to the hostage-taker’s demands. They’re in a tough position, especially after yesterday’s vote in the House, where nearly half of the Democrats joined all Republicans in refusing to raise the debt limit without deep and permanent cuts. Raising the ceiling is extremely unpopular in polls (of course it always has been, but that fact that didn’t prevent a certain M. McConnell from voting to raise it seven times during George W. Bush’s presidency).
But whacking Medicare is extremely unpopular, too. So what the Obama people need to be asking themselves is the following. Are Democrats—and is the president—ready to do what it takes to defeat McConnell and his fellow Republicans in their effort to enact ruinous and unpopular changes to Medicare while also risking default on the country’s debt? I think the Democrats can win the fight politically, but only if they’re ready to go to the wall.
No, it’s not like it was in Cooper’s time, and that’s sad. But it’s a fact—of which McConnell is a walking embodiment. Can we please quit pretending otherwise?
Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.