In the early 3rd century B.C., after King Pyrrhus of Epirus again took brutal casualties in defeating the Romans, he told one person who offered congratulations, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” In his more sober moments, Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, about to achieve his lifelong ambition of becoming Senate majority leader, may wonder whether he, too, has achieved a pyrrhic victory.
Republicans are still crowing about the sweeping victories in 2014 that give them control of both houses of Congress. They will set the agenda, deciding what gets considered, investigated and voted on. Their ideas will drive the debate.
But Republicans have no mandate because they offered no agenda. Republicans reaped the rewards of McConnell’s scorched-Earth strategy, obstructing President Barack Obama relentlessly, helping to create the failure that voters would pin on the party in power. But the collateral damage is that the party of “no” has no agreement on what is yes. Instead of using the years in the wilderness to develop new ideas and a clear vision, Republicans have used them only to sharpen their tongues, grow their claws and practice their backhands.
Republicans paid no penalty for obstructing every measure that might have given the recovery more juice, blocking even the infrastructure spending that has been a bipartisan response in every downturn. They paid no penalty for shutting down the government and forcing mindless austerity that cost jobs. They paid no penalty for their perfervid hysteria on foreign policy issues — screeching about phantom terrors of pregnant immigrants helping Islamic State terrorists and Ebola victims slip in the country to kill us here at home. They never needed to fill in the magic asterisks in Rep. Paul Ryan’s risible budgets, enabling him to deny the damage to Medicare, education, food stamps and the most vulnerable that his plans would require.
The result is that McConnell leads into power a party truly unfit and unready to govern. Indeed, the wingnuts at its base want it only to dismantle, not to govern. As Terrance Heath reported, the ever-apoplectic Rush Limbaugh announced that Republicans have a mandate to “stop Barack Obama” and “were not elected to govern.” Fox News host Megyn Kelly fantasized that Obama would “offend” Republicans into impeaching him; Phyllis Schlafly argued the first priority should be blocking all Obama’s judicial nominees. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pledged once more to repeal Obamacare. The dyspeptic Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, will use his chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee to demand more “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria, harsher sanctions to undermine negotiations with Iran, and more macho posturing over Ukraine. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, will use his likely chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee to deny the existence of catastrophic climate change even while allocating billions for cleanup in the wake of floods, droughts and storms to come.
McConnell portrays Republicans as ready to embrace a conservative Chamber of Commerce agenda, repaying the big money that helped bring them victory. This would include giving multinationals a massive tax break on money that they stashed abroad to avoid taxes, passing fast-track trade authority, pushing ahead the Keystone XL pipeline, weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and repealing the tax on medical devices, first of the salami-style effort to slice up Obamacare.
But the zealots in the House and Senate expect more fire and less compromise. They want Obamacare repealed. They want the scorched-Earth obstruction to continue: Obama’s nominations blocked, scandals real and delusional investigated, Dodd-Frank financial regulation reversed and taxes and domestic spending slashed.
It isn’t at all apparent that McConnell and Boehner can corral Republican majorities for any measures that Obama might accept. But even if McConnell could put the Chamber of Commerce’s bills on the president’s desk, one thing is apparent: None of these will do anything to address the profound crises the country faces. There is no relief for the sinking middle class and impoverished low-wage workers, no strategy for addressing climate change, no response to the destructive excesses of banks too big to fail.
McConnell won his majority by brilliantly waging a partisan, dishonest, unrelenting policy of obstruction. But now, the absence of any ideas or of any clue will be exposed. And next time, when voters sensibly want to throw the bums out, they may have a far clearer view of just who the bums are.