In a not-so-subtle chess move late last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sent a signal to his rank-and-file that the time is coming to capitulate to Democrats on health care reform. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., did not hesitate to exploit the weakness (emphasis mine):
It’s encouraging that Sen. McConnell today acknowledged that the issues with the exchanges are fixable, and opened the door to bipartisan solutions to improve our health care system. As we’ve said time and time again, Democrats are eager to work with Republicans to stabilize the markets and improve the law.
Stock criticisms of McConnell’s conservatism and principle indeed apply. But this last fumble, here at the final showdown over Obamacare – the apex of our generation’s duty to limited government – goes well beyond questions of principle; it reveals a basic lack of competence to lead the Senate.
The majority leader is not up to the job.
Don’t take it from me. Conservatives and moderates are taking turns voicing their frustration with McConnell, his choices, and the exclusive cloak-and-dagger way he operates the chamber.
Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., and John McCain, R-Ariz. – a group of names not often on the same list – have taken their leader to task over one issue or another, all understanding the historic opportunity at their fingertips and all watching it slip away.
Senate Republicans may not all think the same way – indeed, it is a strength of the party that it can be intellectually vibrant and diverse – but one would at least hope they can unite in the common good of serving the voters’ wishes! My hunch is that most of them would agree with this. Unfortunately, they are hamstrung by a leader who has alternative loyalties.
Keep in mind: These are only the complaints these senators see fit to lodge in public. One can surmise none of them are pleased with the culture of stealth and misdirection surrounding every major legislative priority that travels through the chamber. No one can be happy hearing that yet another bill has been shipped off to K-Street or the CBO before the senator being asked to support it has set eyes on the thing.
There is an old saying: If you never lie, you never have to remember anything.
McConnell operates in back rooms because there, he has less to remember. Anything on record becomes an opportunity for contradiction. And contradicted he will stand.
McConnell’s number-one priority in the Senate has been to control and conceal information. A leader who has true conviction is unafraid of open debate and information. A leader who has no conviction is exposed by open debate and the free flow of information.
The Senate has a certain mystique that conceals a basic truth harmful to McConnell: All senators have the same power. The majority leader is different only in that the other senators defer to him to set an agenda. In exchange, the occupant of that role commits to make the rank-and-file’s jobs easier, to facilitate honest debate, and protect the sanctity of the democratic process.
In return for his power over the Senate floor, Mitch McConnell has failed on all counts and only succeeded in generating more P.R. headaches, more secretive controversy, and more obstacles to passing the reforms that Americans voted for our party to enact.
Today’s Senate calls for an open process. If conservative ideas are better, they will win in the public arena. But they deserve a chance. Our complex and fractious times call for a leader unafraid of tough votes and new ideas – one who can bring together the divergent factions of the party and guide the country toward sincere reform.
Someone like Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania fits the mold of a majority leader who can meet these challenges. He has the respect of conservatives and moderates alike, was once hailed as the president of Club for Growth, and is comfortable enough in his own convictions that he is comfortable with open debate and the free flow of information.
Neither I nor anyone else can tell you when the next chance will be to change our country for the good. It’s a critical time for our country, and Republicans are in a great position to make a difference. But that won’t happen if missteps in the Senate continue.
The GOP should oust McConnell and select someone like Toomey, who will be effective in the job.
Gaston Mooney is the executive editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @gastonmooney.