Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., waits to speak during a campaign stop at Badgett Supply in Madisonville, Ky., Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Stephen Lance Dennee/AP Photo

McConnell tries to have it both ways

When it comes to the statutory debt limit and the prospect of a sovereign debt crisis, there are basically two choices for members of Congress to consider.
One can argue, “The nation’s debt ceiling must always be raised, responsibly and on time, to protect the integrity of the nation’s finances, prevent default, and avoid a global economic catastrophe.” Conversely, someone else might argue, “The nation’s debt ceiling is a political weapon, to be used as often as possible, exploited by extremists willing to threaten Americans with deliberate harm, in order to extort policy concessions they can’t earn through normal legislative means.”
It takes a special kind of politician to argue both of these positions at the same time.
Responding to sharp criticism from Sen. Ted Cruz, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he voted to protect the country from default when he cast the decisive vote advancing the suspension of the debt limit this week.
“My job is to protect the country when I can, and step up and lead on those occasions when it’s required,” McConnell told reporters at a campaign event in Kentucky on Friday. “That’s what I did.”
McConnell said the Senate had only two choices after House Republicans were unable to coalesce around any strategy for attaching policy provisions to the debt limit hike: “a clean debt ceiling in the Senate or default.”
The problem for McConnell is that the closer one looks at his position, the more incoherent it becomes. Indeed, while I can appreciate why the Senate Minority Leader feels a little defensive on this issue, the fact remains that he set this trap and proceeded to throw himself into it.
It was, after all, McConnell who admitted in 2011 that he embraces the idea of threatening the nation with deliberate harm. It was he, not Democrats, who touted the value of “hostage” strategies as a way of circumventing the American lawmaking process and forcing Democrats to give Republicans what they want out of fear of a self-imposed catastrophe.
In other words, it was McConnell who personally told Republicans and their supporters that the party should embrace extortion politics and use the debt ceiling to threaten to hurt Americans on purpose.
That strategy, we now know, was a spectacular failure – President Obama declared there would be no further hostage talks, effectively daring Republicans to pull the trigger. GOP leaders were bluffing and, left with no choice, let their “hostage” go unharmed.
McConnell apparently is looking for some kind of credit, as if his actions were somehow noble. “My job,” he said, “is to protect the country when I can.” The debt ceiling had to go up to prevent a global economic crash, so he did what he had to do.
But I’m hard pressed to imagine how anyone would believe this. As the debt-ceiling crisis took shape, McConnell said it was his job to put the country in jeopardy. Now that the crisis has passed, he says it’s his job to protect the country. He wants to be the guy who takes the hostage and the guy who heroically frees the hostage when its loved ones refused to pay a ransom.
Complicating matters further, let’s also note that when push came to shove, McConnell grudgingly voted to end his party’s filibuster, but he still voted not to raise the debt ceiling.
McConnell has spent the last few years telling his party’s base that extortion politics and unprecedented radicalism are welcome changes to national politics. So why is he surprised when the base is furious with him for backing away from the very tactics he told them to embrace?
As Greg Sargent put it the other day, this “offers an interesting glimpse into an amusing 2014 subplot: The ongoing efforts by GOP leaders to wrestle to the ground the monster they spent years creating.”