What Mitch McConnell Knows About American Politics And Why It’s a Problem

There are many words in Josh Green’s profile of Mitch McConnell and many of them are good, but these are the most important:

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

This is a shrewd insight of McConnell’s and in his role as party caucus leader in the United States Senate it’s wholly appropriate of him to act on his insight. What’s more, it’s impressive that McConnell has not only hit upon this insight but succeeded in persuading his colleagues to follow with him. Effective caucus leadership is difficult in the United States, and especially in the Senate, and I think history will record McConnell as an important parliamentary innovator.

That said, McConnell’s insight is not only impressive, it’s a problem for the country. The basic mechanics of his insight are clear. Most people don’t pay attention to politics very much, and don’t have detailed informed opinions about politics. But most people do have reasonably strong feelings about political parties and about political leaders. So most people reason about issues backwards from what elites are doing. Thus if you see Barack Obama propose something and then that something attracts bipartisan support, people generally conclude that it’s good. Conversely, if you see Barack Obama propose a series of things that meet with universal GOP condemnation, people generally conclude that these proposals are partisan and extreme. Logically, then, the opposition party should uniformly oppose the President’s ideas.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with a political system in which the opposition greets the agenda-setter’s proposals with routine condemnation. That’s how things work in Ireland and the United Kingdom and Sweden and Denmark and Japan and Germany and all kinds of other places. But the structure of American political institutions is that it’s (a) generally impossible to pass major legislation without substantial bipartisan agreement and (b) generally impossible to undertake routine executive branch staffing without nearly universal bipartisan agreement.