The defeat of President Trump has shifted liberal fire to the Republican who will wield the most power over the Biden agenda: Senator Mitch McConnell. Those decrying the “Giant Mitch McConnell Problem,” as Vanity Fair called it, assume that a McConnell-led GOP Senate will unleash a wave of bad-faith, hyper-partisan obstructionism that strangles Biden’s proposals.
Liberal analyst Norman Ornstein has long attacked “hostage-taking” congressional Republicans and offered increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories about McConnell. Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls McConnell the “most dangerous politician of my lifetime” (yes, worse than Trump). The Democratic presidential debates earlier this year focused heavily on attacking the senator from Kentucky.
All this demonization cannot erase the reality that McConnell and congressional Republicans have a healthy record of compromising with Democrats. The issue is that many of the critics don’t want bipartisan compromise; rather, they insist that Republicans unconditionally surrender and rubber-stamp liberal legislation with nothing in return.
Today’s Republicans are not the anti-government partisans reflected in the common liberal caricature. During the past four years, they teamed up with Democrats to add a combined $620 billion in discretionary spending over the budget caps, and this year agreed to a historic $3 trillion legislative response to the pandemic.
Last year, the McConnell Senate crafted and passed overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation to stem the border crisis. And when McConnell tried to open a Senate debate on police reform under a guarantee that all proposals would receive an equal vote (which Democrats would have the power to enforce), it was Democrats who nonetheless filibustered even opening a debate.
What about during the Obama presidency? Critics regularly highlight McConnell’s late-2010 comments declaring the goal of making Obama a one-term president. While this was more blunt than usual, opposition-party leaders have long married politics and policy. Besides, it does not negate the large number of bipartisan compromises that McConnell subsequently negotiated with Obama.
Begin with the 2011 Budget Control Act. Both President Obama and the GOP had campaigned on addressing deficits. During their negotiations, neither got their first choice in reforms (tax hikes for Democrats, entitlement reforms for Republicans), so each agreed to the next-best option: a roughly equal mix of defense/security savings (for Democrats) and domestic budget savings (for Republicans).
The following year, neither party wanted to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the bottom-earning 98 percent of taxpayers. So the White House and Republicans drew the line at raising taxes for the top 1 percent, and also spent $30 billion to extend emergency unemployment benefits—another roughly 50/50 deal.
Congressional Republicans also regularly supported Democratic government expansions during the Obama presidency. They approved an extra $666 billion in additional (post-Recovery Act) stimulus provisions between 2010 and 2013. Congress extended unemployment benefits three times, expanded CHIP benefits, significantly expanded veterans’ benefits, prevented the bankruptcy of the Social Security Disability Insurance system, and cut interest rates on student loans.
The parties came together to fight opioid abuse, enact a permanent “doc fix” to avert Medicare cuts, and streamline the approval of new drugs and medical devices. Farm subsidies, food nutrition programs, and highway programs were reauthorized (with additional highway trust-fund bailouts). Within discretionary spending, Republicans worked with Democrats to loosen spending caps, rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and enact $7 trillion in total appropriations over the final six years of split government.
This is not the record of an anti-compromise congressional GOP hell-bent on tearing down government.
And who negotiated many of these deals on behalf of the Obama administration? Vice President Joe Biden, who was nonetheless mocked for acknowledging his decades of successful negotiations with McConnell.
It was when Democrats tried to move government dramatically leftward without equal concessions that Republicans understandably balked.
Take the 2009 stimulus—a nearly $1 trillion government expansion based on a Keynesian theory that many Republicans reject. Even the one-third of the bill allocated to tax cuts consisted mostly of routine extensions of existing tax policies, refundable tax credits that function like spending, and special-interest tax breaks for Democratic business interests.
When Republicans offered a short list of modest policies they hoped to include in the bill, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously declared, “We have the votes, fuck ’em.” With Democrats taunting the GOP and dismissing their input, famed journalist Bob Woodward called the bill a partisan “bulldozing.”
Nor should it surprise anyone that Republicans voted against Obamacare and its huge expansion of government and taxes. The enormity of the federal spending, regulations, mandates, and (poorly designed) taxes well exceeded whatever earlier idea of an individual mandate or health exchange that the Heritage Foundation or the Massachusetts RomneyCare architects had considered.
McConnell also led the GOP rejection of Merrick Garland’s 2016 Supreme Court candidacy. This was certainly a hardball tactic. However, only the most committed partisans can deny that had the roles been reversed, there is precisely zero chance that Harry Reid or Chuck Schumer’s Senate would have confirmed a Republican-appointed justice in the final year of a GOP presidential administration (key Democrats even said so in 1992 and 2008).
More broadly, it was Senate Democrats who first filibustered a federal judge nominee with majority support (Miguel Estrada), denied a committee hearing to 32 Bush judicial nominees out of the gate in 2001-2002, invoked the nuclear option for federal judge nominees, and then tried to filibuster Neil Gorsuch for purely political reasons. Republicans absolutely play hardball on judges too—and McConnell revels in it—but the judicial wars have long been a two-way street.
McConnell’s Senate is also criticized for refusing to take up 611 bills (through Dec. 11) that have been passed by the Democratic House during the current Congress. This is quite normal across parties. Back in the 2007-2008 Congress, the Democratic Senate refused to take up 734 bills passed by its own party in the Democratic House. Even McConnell’s intense focus on confirming judicial and executive-branch nominees (at the expense of legislation and amendments) matches how Harry Reid ran the Democratic Senate under President Obama.
The complaints of “extreme Republican obstructionism” are not only false, they are also hypocritical.
After all, few cried “obstructionism” when congressional Democrats vociferously opposed the 2017 tax cuts, 2017 GOP health-care reforms, border wall funding, and countless Trump judicial and executive appointees. This is nothing new. Back in 2005, when asked when Democrats would follow President Bush’s lead and release a plan to save Social Security from eventual insolvency, Nancy Pelosi snapped back, “Never. Is never good enough for you?”
Evidently one side’s “partisan obstructionism” is another side’s “resistance” against destructive policies.
I can go on. Many people who thrashed Republicans for shutting down the government in 2013 over Obamacare turned around and cheered on Democrats doing the same thing in early 2018 over immigration. President Obama slammed Republicans for accepting “only” $800 billion in tax increases during the 2011 deficit-reduction negotiations, despite his own refusal to make equivalent concessions to Republican entitlement savings priorities.
The evidence clearly shows that congressional Republicans are not especially obstructionist—they behave quite similarly to Democrats. The fury directed at Republicans comes from a strain of liberalism that sees in itself the inevitable march of progress, and considers any opposition to be illegitimate. Conservatives are to be crushed and “resisted,” not negotiated with as equals.
In this framework, accepting bold conservative proposals in return for liberal priorities would be unconscionable. So those Democrats redefine “compromise” as shifting policy slightly less leftward than they would prefer (i.e., pursuing an Obamacare public option instead of Medicare-For-All), but still accepting no Republican priorities in return.
Rather than rail against Republicans for not rubber-stamping liberal proposals, Democratic lawmakers must ask themselves which equivalent conservative proposals they are willing to accept in exchange. For instance, getting a strong Obamacare public option may require also accepting a Medicare premium support option that allows seniors more choices among private health plans.
After all, Democrats would never surrender to the GOP on tax cuts, oil and gas exploration, deep immigration restrictions, and Obamacare repeal with little-to-nothing in return. Yet liberal critics call McConnell an obstructionist threat to democracy for not pledging to enact a $15 minimum wage, major Obamacare expansion, Green New Deal, and student loan forgiveness without equal GOP wins. Mitch McConnell has shown he will compromise. Too bad his critics are demanding unconditional surrender.
Brian Riedl is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_Riedl.