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Why Mitch McConnell's candor about his '100% focus' matters

Mitch McConnell keeps telling anyone who'll listen that he prioritizes partisanship over governing. It's time to believe him.


There's no shortage of drama among House Republicans this week, but asked about the Capitol Hill developments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday shared some candid thoughts about his priorities.

"One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration," McConnell said, adding, "We're confronted with severe challenges from a new administration, and a narrow majority of Democrats in the House and a 50-50 Senate to turn America into a socialist country, and that's 100 percent of my focus."

The comments raised eyebrows through much of the political world for a reason: McConnell could've said he's focused on helping address the devastating pandemic or economic recovery. The Senate Republicans' leader similarly could've said his priorities include tackling key national priorities and working with a White House that's desperate to strike congressional compromises.

But instead, McConnell told the truth -- or at least the truth as he sees it -- about how he intends to use his power.

Broadly speaking, there are two angles to this that are worth keeping in mind. The first is the degree to which the Kentucky senator's comments were unsurprising.

As regular readers know, I made the case in my book that in the wake of President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration, Republicans were under some pressure to be responsible and constructive, with many pleading with GOP officials to resist the urge to slap away the Democratic president's outstretched hand. McConnell executed a different kind of plan, refusing to even consider bipartisan governing, even when Obama agreed with his opponents.

As the Kentuckian saw it, the public believes bipartisan bills are popular, so he rejected every element of the Democratic White House's agenda so voters would not see Obama succeeding. "We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals," McConnell told The Atlantic in 2011, referring to legislation backed by the White House.

McConnell has never felt the need to be coy about any of this. "Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do," the GOP leader told National Journal in March 2010. "Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion."

In other words, McConnell felt like he'd cracked a code: Republicans would make popular measures less popular by killing them. McConnell's plan was predicated on the idea that if he could just turn every debate into a partisan food fight, voters would be repulsed; Obama's outreach to Republicans would be perceived as a failure; progressive ideas would fail; and GOP candidates would be rewarded for their obstinance.

McConnell added soon after, in reference to his party's approach to policymaking, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.... Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful."

This is the senator's vision. It is not a secret. With Biden in the Oval Office, McConnell has a guiding principle: Failure is the goal. His priority is to position his party to retake the Senate majority after the 2022 midterms, and then elect a Republican president in 2024. Working constructively with a Democratic White House would do little to advance these objectives, which is precisely why he will choose a maximalist partisan course: because a "100 percent focus" on undermining the Biden administration will give McConnell more of what he wants.

But the other relevant angle is the lesson Democrats can and should learn from the Senate minority leader's candor: Republicans aren't interested in governing; they're interested in thwarting those who are interested in governing.

Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) guiding principle is that GOP senators are sincerely interested in crafting bipartisan compromises, which he can help negotiate if given the opportunity. President Joe Biden has also invested time and effort into the idea that Republicans are ready to deal.

It's precisely why McConnell's comments deserve so much attention: the nation's most powerful GOP lawmaker is effectively telling Democrats to stop trying. It's a clarifying moment for every relevant player: McConnell's priority isn't using the levers of power to make a material difference in Americans' lives, it's "stopping this new administration."

And with that clarity should come a shift in legislative strategy. Democrats have the procedural wherewithal to advance popular and important legislation without Senate Republicans' input, and yesterday, the GOP's Senate leader practically invited the Democratic majority to do exactly that.