The Senate is the place where conservative dreams and GOP promises go to die, even when Republicans officially control the chamber. This was true of the Gingrich-era Contract with America; it was true of the few good things the Bush Republicans wanted to do in the early 2000s; and, with the exception of the tax cuts, it has been true of the first year of the GOP’s trifecta control of the elected federal government.
But now, improving polling, the immigration issue, and the Democrats’ loss of the shutdown fight give McConnell the opportunity to finish his career as a statesman, fulfill the promises of the GOP platform, and simultaneously improve his party’s odds in the midterms. But that would require a change in his modus operandi. Will he see the obvious play down the field?
Something interesting happens when you stand firm for commonsense ideas and act definitively: The polling moves along with your actions. It’s called leadership — even statesmanship. The tax bill, much like any new proposal in this era of polarization, was extremely unpopular from the outset, particularly when Republicans bungled the messaging. But it was the one issue they didn’t just talk about; they actually passed it and made an end run around the filibuster. Now, the stock market is surging, the economy is growing, jobs are being created, and numerous large companies are offering “Trump tax-cut bonuses.” Beginning next month, all working Americans will see withholdings drop and their take-home pay increase. Even before that occurs, the tax law is already surging in the polls. And a CNN poll indicates that the calamitous Democrat lead in the generic ballot is shrinking.
McConnell must ask himself two simple questions: 1) Does he think he will be more successful this year by following the modus operandi of the first nine months or so of GOP governance or the last few months? 2) How does he expect to replicate the success of the tax bill on other major issues, such as immigration, budget, welfare, and regulatory reform, without at least some minor changes to the filibuster?
The advisers, consultants, and lobbyists surrounding McConnell must understand that even if they disagree with conservatives on some policies, this era of politics will force them to re-examine their long-standing assumptions about which strategies and issues are winners and which ones are losers. Also, the looming release of the devastating House Intel Committee memo on Obama administration collaboration against an opposition candidate and the disintegration of the Russian investigation might seriously damage the Democrats in the months before the midterms.
So what should McConnell do?
He should start by becoming a warrior for his party’s platform and the president’s agenda, the same way Chuck Schumer is for his party. For far too long, the main problem with McConnell has been that he acts like an outside commentator, opining on process, votes, and amendments but failing to take a meaningful stand on the issues and drive a narrative. Yes, the conference is fractured, but that is partly because leadership never takes a definitive stance on the issues … except against conservatives. Rather than offer an open-ended debate on “DACA,” he should introduce the Goodlatte immigration bill. This is the consensus bill from the two House committee chairs with relevant jurisdiction over immigration and even (much to the chagrin of some of us) contains a minimal amnesty for about 700,000 illegals. Yes, he can offer an open amendment process, but he should introduce the base bill as the one supported by conservatives and he should whip support for it. He should be relentlessly focused on criminal aliens, sanctuary cities, chain migration, and the fiscal drain of welfare for immigrants and drive home those points as majority leader the same way Schumer and Durbin drive home their points for illegal aliens.
History has shown that every time Democrats want to sneak an amnesty around the American people, a broad and open debate about immigration in general turns the tide against the Left. McConnell can be the man to finally fulfill the immigration promise to Americans. And this is a bill that, unlike the tax bill, polls well out of the gate.
Then he should move on to defunding Planned Parenthood, ripping up Dodd-Frank, passing the REINS Act, and repealing Obamacare. Watch the polling change dramatically both on the issues and on party control if he chooses to act decisively and actually pass the bills.
At the same time, any successful strategy will require some attention to reforming the 60-vote threshold to stop debate and vote on a bill. McConnell can keep his passionate support for true filibusters while reining in the open-ended ability of 41 senators to shut down every issue every time, including budget and appropriation bills, without even raising their voices. This can be accomplished through any mix of the following:
There are many ways to preserve the prerogative of the minority to employ dilatory tactics and slow down the agenda to ensure the Senate doesn’t run like the House, while still not operating on an exclusive 60-vote necessity all the time. Just the mere threat of implementing some changes would work wonders on the Democrat minority.
McConnell has two clear paths headed into the midterm elections:
He can continue passively allowing Democrats to control the agenda while agreeing to most of their policy assumptions. This has the effect of magnifying their agenda, depressing his own base, and keeping him on the hook for everything the government does, eliciting blowback from independents while the galvanizing the left-wing base.
Or he can pursue a relentlessly bold agenda and break the spirit of the Democrats while exciting the GOP base, offering independents new ideas, and depressing the Democrat base, as when Democrats caved on the Schumer shutdown.
Passing true immigration reform that puts Americans first and passing health care reform that promotes price transparency and consumer choice and breaks the monopoly of the insurance cartel would achieve these goals, especially when coupled with the growing economy and the increasingly positive feedback on the tax law.
The choice is his.
But that requires some willingness to put the status quo version of the filibuster on the table. McConnell is very proud of the two accomplishments of cutting taxes and confirming Neil Gorsuch. In fact, he spoke about Gorsuch at the ceremony celebrating the signing of the tax bill. But those two accomplishments were only achieved by circumventing the filibuster. Nothing more will be added to that list unless changes are made to fake filibusters.
It’s time, 33 years into his Senate career, for McConnell to finally be a statesman, to propose and articulate a intrepid agenda, and to do what it takes to get the ball into the end zone. The K Street game only has so much payoff, and at 75 years old, isn’t it time he built a real legacy?
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.