David R. Henderson  

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MItch McConnell Enabled Obamacare

Just before Christmas, I read somewhere that Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the U.S. Senate, had made it easier for Harry Reid to pass the ugly Senate health care bill. I hadn't understood it at the time and then forgot about it.

But on today's Huffington Post, left/liberal Lawrence O'Donnell explains it. Here are three key paragraphs:

This time, Republicans tried to look obstructionist. To the media, the Tea Partiers, and Sarah Palin, it sure looked like Republicans were pulling out all the stops -- forcing a reading of the bill, forcing a frail elderly senator to vote in the middle of the night. But the Republicans only offered four substantive amendments along with five hopeless motions to send the bill back to the Finance Committee. One Republican amendment actually got 51 votes, but didn't pass because McConnell's 60-vote agreement with Reid sabotaged it. A Democratic amendment on re-importation of prescription drugs got more than 50 votes but did not pass. It would have shot a hole through Harry Reid's bill, as would other Democratic amendments that got more than 50 votes and failed. McConnell's unanimous consent agreement with Reid made Reid's bill impenetrable on the floor.

There are no columnists or pundits who understand Senate parliamentary procedure. There are actually very few senators who do. McConnell knows that. He knew everyone would fall for the silly stunts that looked obstructionist while he was surrendering all his power to Reid.

And now the strategy becomes clear: Repeal it! That is the Republican Party battle cry for the 2010 election. Repealing Obamacare is going to be the centerpiece of their campaign to take back the House and Senate. But how can you repeal it if they don't pass it. Hence, Mitch McConnell's enabling.

What this shows beautifully is that there's a difference between the goals of Republican politicians and the goals of people who want smaller government. Duh, I know, but I'm saying more than the usual. What many of the Republicans most want is to be in power. They care much less about what the actual legislation is. They've sensed a winning issue in running against Obamacare but, as O'Donnell says, how do you run against something you defeated many months ago. It's better, from their viewpoint, to run against legislation that has actually passed.

So fast forward to November. Without Obamacare to run against, the Republicans have less chance of winning. Remember: they want to win. But the interest of many of us is not to have Republicans win: it's to defeat Obamacare. So Obamacare passes, or would have passed without Scott Brown. The Republicans run against it. They win both Houses of Congress and end up with, say, 52 of 100 Senate seats. They pass a law repealing Obamacare. See the problem? Guess who's President. Guess who has the veto. Guess who will go down fighting to keep his dose of heavy government intervention in health care. Guess what percent of the House and Senate have to vote to override a veto.

Bottom line: Mitch McConnell was willing to have huge additional intervention in health care just so he could have his party run the Senate.

HT to Sheldon Richman.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Eric H writes:

I'm fully prepared for contemptuous snickering after this admission: my whole rationale for voting for McCain was the veto. 2006 was evidence for me that health care "reform" was imminent, and that if it passed, whatever remained of the conservative-libertarian-free market coalition would be resigned to making "free market" reforms to socialized medicine. Republicans would reinvent themselves as champions for "efficient" and "productive" government, advocates of limited government would be hounded out of power, and leviathan would be on its way to the biggest growth spurt ever.

It was a gamble, I know.

HispanicPundit writes:

Does this really surprise you???

I thought it was common knowledge on the right that the number one priority of politicians is: keep and maintain power. This is what politicians do.

This is why they are all despicable people.

David R. Henderson writes:

"Does this really surprise you?"
Yes. But the "this" that surprises me is the "this" I mentioned: namely, McConnell's antics behind the scene with all the kabuki play in the Senate. Tell me, sir, did you know all this?

James Miller writes:

This might be wrong. McConnell might have calculated that if an amendment needed only 51 votes to pass then the bill would have been amended in such a way as to make it more likely that it would pass. The 60 vote requirement reduced the power of moderate Republican Senators and so made it much harder for the bill to appear bipartisan and so make less likely to pass.

Also, at the time it was reasonable for McConnell to figure that the exact content of the Senate Bill wasn't that important because the real details would be worked out in the house/senate conference.

Dan writes:

Mr. Henderson,

I believe it is incorrect to assume the Republicans could have stopped the inevitable. You are also failing to take into account the risk of Republicans being labeled obstructionists by the media, Democrats and the electorate.

What stopped ObamaCare was public opinion. It was the Louisiana and Nebraska back room deals. It was the union deals. It was the insult of claiming transparency when there was none.

The ball is still in the Democrat's court. They can choose to take the higher road or continue down the scorched earth path. The latter will yield significant Republican gains. The former could still save Obama's presidency and the Democratic majorities.

John Thacker writes:
"But the "this" that surprises me is the "this" I mentioned: namely, McConnell's antics behind the scene with all the kabuki play in the Senate. Tell me, sir, did you know all this?"

Yes, but he's got the story wrong. This did not make the bill easier to pass. This made the bill harder to pass, as various amendments friendly to a majority of the Senate failed, but meant that if the bill did pass that it would be more extreme. It was a high-risk strategy, to be sure, but James Miller is correct-- it was a strategy that reduced the power of the moderates.

Would you have approved of a tactic of getting a "seat at the table" and watering down the bill slightly but having it pass? That is, the logic of the Medicare Part D bill, that it's better to shape the bill or else a worse one will get passed? That was the alternative option.

Leader McConnell chose the path of non-cooperation in the hopes of killing the entire bill, rather than the path of amending it that would increase the chances of it passing with moderate support.

David R. Henderson writes:

John Thacker,
If you've got it right, then I retract my original charge. One empirical test of which motive is right, a test that we probably won't get to carry out: last night, behind closed doors, was Mitch McConnell celebrating or mourning?

Douglass Holmes writes:

Sorry. I don't think Lawrence O'donnell is smart enough to understand what Mitch McConnell does. I'm usually very skeptical of the ability of liberals to read the minds of conservatives.

I think Senator McConnell's strategy made sense for fighting against the bill in a 60-40 senate. Let's see how that changes now that we have a 59-41 senate.

John Thacker writes:


Yes, we don't entirely know. I mean, sure, it is hypothetically possible that McConnell wanted the Democratic overreach to succeed but without any Republican fingerprints, so that the Republicans could make tactical gains. Sen. Scott Brown gives McConnell another particularly unruly member of his caucus, like Sens. Snowe and Collins. This means there's a chance of bipartisan bills passing, if the Democrats are willing to go for half a loaf instead of maximizing their result.

However, Leader Reid overplayed his hand, and upset all the moderate Republicans. This particular bill seems too damaged to survive.

At this point I'd say it's working out much better than McConnell had a right to believe. What happens next depends on the Democratic response:

1) Move slightly to the center, and court Brown, Collins, and Snowe with more center-left bills, or
2) Damn the torpedos, ready lots of left-wing bills and force the Republicans to filibuster them all, and use that as their 2010 election rallying cry.

Lots of Democratic pundits are calling for 2), but the politicians seem to be going for 1). The prospect of losing one's head concentrates the mind wonderfully, they say.

Marc writes:

After reading this, I feel better about my vote for Brown, I screwed both parties.

Good for me.

Scott Smith writes:

Erick Erickson over at Redstate.com has written pretty extensively about this question. Here is a entry that summarizes the objections he made to McConnell's "strategy."


Delaying tactics were the only weapon in the arsenal. I guess you can argue about the token resistance offered but, I'm not convinced it was anything more than token.

An interesting question to pose based on yesterdays election...If McConnell had struck a high-profile obstructionist pose at the end of last year, would the margin of victory for Brown been even larger? Somehow, I don't think so.

David C writes:

The narrative that Ezra Klein has been pushing for I don't know how many months is that Democrats will lose more seats if the bill fails. Since I don't know of any pundit who seems to have a better grasp of the issues surrounding health care than he does, I'll take his word for it.

John Thacker writes:

The political analysis is complicated.

Suppose Senator McConnell had not done this. Then provisions like the "Cornhusker kickback" would have been stripped. On the one hand, that may have made it harder to get Sen. Nelson's final vote. On the other hand, if the kickback had been introduced but then stripped, Sen. Nelson could at least say, "I did my best," which was his plan all along.

But those provisions are a large part of why the House doesn't want to pass the Senate bill as-is. Not allowing amendments made the Senate bill worse and more subject to including the whims of the swing senators like Landrieu, Nelson, and Nelson. Those deals struck in committee couldn't be removed on the floor in the standard Washington play-acting.

McConnell's tactic made the Senate bill worse. That may have made the Senate bill easier to pass in the Senate. But it also, right now, makes the House retch at the idea of passing the Senate bill unchanged.

guthrie writes:

LOL Marc! Bravo, sir!

Ed Brenegar writes:

This isn't really that surprising. Congress is a closed society, operating off their own rules. Rules the citizenry does not understand, care for or approve of.
If seems that the power of government is like the power of the one ring from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Good people get seduced to thinking that with this power that they can do infinite good. Only,to do so you must give your soul to a conception of government whose logic is more is better, not less.
It is just like Boromir, the Fellowship member from Gondor who saw in the ring hopes for his people to defeat Sauron. What he could not realize until the very end is that power doesn't work this way. Power is by its very nature corrupting, and the more so when for a good and noble cause. It blinds the holder to their own self-deception.
What the Tea Party movement promises is a treatment of the political class that does not distinguish between Republican or Democrat, left or right, but between big and small government. I think this is healthy. The question of the year politically is where will Frodo come from?

David writes:

To Ed Brenegar: I was recently thinking along the same lines. Not where Frodo will come from, but where Martin Luther would come from. I imagine that 500 years ago Rome had its own version of the Huffington Post parsing out the differences between Popes and cardinals and enamored of the palace intrigue. Just nail a copy of the US Constitution to your front door.

HispanicPundit writes:

I didn't know the specifics no, but it still doesn't surprise me. The fact that politicians are one way in public and often times very different behind closed doors (especially in search of keeping and expanding their power) is such a universal that the only thing that changes is the details.

Informative yes, but not surprising.

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