The fight among Republicans over whether to shut down the government in the fall isn't going away. The Heritage Foundation's political-activism arm is trying to convince GOP lawmakers that the fallout wouldn't be that bad; Karl Rove and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sparred this week on Sean Hannity's radio show over the strategy; and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus are conspicuously contradicting each other.
This is ordinarily the point at which Republican leaders intervene to prevent the intra-party fissures from getting too severe. And for a brief moment yesterday, it looked like that had finally happened.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told a crowd at a health care forum in Kentucky on Tuesday that while he does not like the president's health care law, shutting down the government over funding it "will not stop" it from existing."I'm for stopping Obamacare, but shutting down the government will not stop Obamacare," McConnell told the audience at Baptist Health Corbin, according to a WYMT-TV reporter at the event.
Good for McConnell. The Kentucky Republican had been content to sit on the sidelines while Republicans tore each other apart on this issue, but yesterday, he finally offered a little straight talk: those who hope to tear down the federal health care system need to realize that shutting down the government will not actually bring them closer to their goal.
This is the sort of leadership that's been lacking in the GOP in recent weeks, so it was a welcome a development. That is, until McConnell quickly announced he didn't really mean it.
As news of McConnell's comments made the rounds yesterday afternoon, the senator's office confirmed to Greg Sargent that McConnell "did not take sides in the dispute over whether to stage a shutdown confrontation."
And as it turns out, the office was telling the truth -- a local station aired the interview with McConnell, and while he noted that a shutdown would not stop implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the senator did not take the next step of endorsing one strategy or another.
In other words, McConnell realizes that shutting down the government won't stop "Obamacare," but he thinks a shutdown may be worth doing anyway. Or maybe not. He doesn't want to say.
Let's not brush past the larger context. Soon after McConnell seemed to reject his party's ridiculous (and probably suicidal) shutdown scheme, McConnell's office was eager -- desperate, even -- to assure everyone that the Senate Leader was not, in any way, demonstrating any kind of leadership, or stating an opinion in public. He's aware of the major dispute among his own followers, but McConnell wants one thing to be perfectly clear: he's ready to let this division continue, without so much as taking a side.
Maybe he needs a new title. Senate Minority Bystander seems more appropriate under the circumstances.