Is McConnell Trying to Sabotage Obamacare Overhaul Bill?

(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is either amazingly sly or a genius, or perhaps a Jedi knight – or perhaps an overmatched little troll who can’t even succeed at taking candy from a baby no matter how hard he tries. Or something in between.

McConnell Kentucky photo

Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC)

Analyses of McConnell were all over the map this week, but it’s likely that, at least until President Trump’s latest Twitter fiasco, the Kentucky senator has never before been quite so much the center of attention or armchair psychologizing. The focus on McConnell revolves around his ability, or lack thereof, to find a way to force a replacement for Obamacare through a fractious Senate.

On Tuesday, it was Nate Silver writing a story headlinedMitch McConnell Isn’t Playing 13-Dimensional Chess.” Against those who theorize that the inscrutable senator had some secret up his sleeve, Silver wrote: “McConnell’s strategy is fairly obvious: He wants to pass legislation that lowers taxes on the wealthy and reduces government spending to the largest extent politically practicable.”

On Wednesday, it was the New York TimesFrank Bruni writing of “The Misery of Mitch McConnell,” Politico’s Jeff Greenfield writing “Why I’m Not Betting Against Mitch McConnell,” and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times asking “is Mitch McConnell Trying to Tank Trumpcare?”

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And on Thursday, CNN’s Jeff Zelizer opined about “McConnell’s Test: Can He Do More Than Obstruct?,” while Benjamin Wells-Walker of the New Yorker wondered “Where Will Mitch McConnell Go From Here?”

And that’s just a sampling.

Wells-Walker explained why, as the health-policy battle looked ready to rage (or maybe to fizzle), the main player was McConnell:

For the past half-decade, McConnell has been arguably the most consequential person in Washington. The rush to pass the health-care bill was the kind of fight that’s supposed to be made for him. Going into this week, members of the Republican leadership knew they didn’t have the votes, yet they and the White House were optimistic because they had McConnell.

Compared even to the oft-warring Republican conference in the House, Wells-Walker wrote, “A more tenuous partisan coalition exists in the Senate, and its cohesion depends upon McConnell’s power to persuade. [But] political genius is often more conditional than we allow.”

That’s why all eyes are on McConnell: because even those who think he’s either an evil genius or a crafty hero all seem to see the health-care battle as the biggest, most probably un-ace-able, test of his career.

The liberal Bruni of the New York Times posited that McConnell’s “misery” is a case of chickens finally roosting. “Until now, McConnell has evaded the degree of demonization that you might expect,” Bruni wrote. “He’s too pale a blur to arouse passion, and as an object of fascination, he can hold neither bow nor arrow to the dimpled deer hunter [Paul Ryan] who reigns over the other side of the Capitol.” But now, Bruni all but chortled, McConnell can’t escape the spotlight, or the blame for making the Senate “sadder still” than it’s ever been before.

That is, unless, as McManus of the L.A. Times theorizes, McConnell doesn’t really want to pass a bill at all, but is just going through a charade: “Here’s the problem McConnell will face if he succeeds: Once they’ve enacted a law that will inevitably become known as Trumpcare, Republicans will own every problem in the American healthcare system.” Therefore, goes the hypothesis, McConnell may be “warming to the idea of taking a dive. It may be the only way he has to show Trump how difficult governing really is.”

The reason it’s hard even for McConnell, writes Zelizer at CNN, is that “To many, he has defined his career as an obstructionist rather than as someone who creates new policies…. [But] now the situation is different. For the first time in his career as a party leader (other than the brief moment he was selected as Senate majority leader in 2006), the public will see just how well he can perform in making things happen rather than blocking progress. But the skills are different on the other side of the line of scrimmage.”

To all of this delight the media pack was taking in seeing McConnell squirm, though, it was left to the relatively moderate Greenfield to provide a corrective. Despite all the obstacles, Greenfield reminded readers, McConnell is “a wily negotiator whose capacity for pulling legislative rabbits out of hats should never be underestimated.” Providing detail worth reading about, Greenfield explained three major considerations pushing in favor of passing a bill of some sort that is close enough to “replacing” Obamacare that Republicans can at least claim something close enough to victory that they won’t be laughed off the stage.

“Taken together,” Greenfield wrote, “these underlying realities suggest that, if you’re betting on history to repeat itself, McConnell will get 50 votes for his bill.”

The secret could be that McConnell isn’t playing any kind of chess. He’s just plowing forward, one careful step at a time, in a game in which he controls the rules, the time-clock, and the playing field. The game ain’t over (to update Yogi) until McConnell says it’s over. And the thin man hasn’t sung yet.