Juan Williams: McConnell's cunning Keystone game

Juan Williams: McConnell's cunning Keystone game
© Greg Nash

Last week, the Senate majority leader got 10 Democrats to vote with the GOP for a motion to continue debate on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian oil through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico for shipment overseas.

President Obama intends to veto the bill. And most Republicans admit they don’t have the 67 votes necessary to override a presidential veto. Reaching that goal would require not just Republican unanimity on the issue (which McConnell has), but also the support of 13 Democrats (which he doesn’t).


McConnell knows he won’t win on the pipeline. That is not the point. McConnell is a terrific, canny political player. As Senate minority leader for the first six years of the Obama presidency, he set the Republicans’ successful strategy of obstruction. He unified the Republicans on Capitol Hill in opposition to anything with the president’s name on it.

Now he is testing Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) ability as minority leader to hold Senate Democrats together in opposition to a Republican agenda favoring the pipeline, halting immigration reform, lowering corporate taxes, and seeking to destroy ObamaCare.

If significant numbers of Senate Democrats are willing to join with Republicans to force presidential vetoes, McConnell wins. He gains the power to paint himself as the good guy working across political lines. And he will smear the remaining Democrats as members of an out-of-the-mainstream party in the grips of leftist ideologues — Obama, Reid, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and possibly Hillary Clinton.

McConnell has identified three Democrats as prime targets for defection: Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.). Those red-state senators were among the 10 Democrats voting with him on the pipeline bill last week.

Keystone was first up because it is central to McConnell’s goal of changing the GOP’s image from the party of Wall Street and Southern white, social conservatives to the party able to produce economic prosperity for the beleaguered American worker.

The challenge for Republicans is that 2012 exit polls showed Democrats, led by President Obama, won big over the Republicans (81 to 18 percent) on the question of which candidate cares about “people like me.”

McConnell takes every chance he gets to describe the pipeline as a jobs bill. He plans to follow it up with a vote “restoring the 40-hour workweek,” to ObamaCare. He says that will produce more jobs by freeing employers from providing health insurance under ObamaCare. His broader goal is to sell the GOP as the party of the working class.

“If there’s one party for the working person right now, it’s the Republican Party,” newly elected Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy (R) said recently on “Fox News Sunday,” artfully expressing McConnell’s new narrative. “The Republican Party is pushing the use of natural resources to create American jobs. It is the Democratic Party that is trying to kill those jobs. … In the coal industry, they clearly have a war on coal. In the oil and gas industry, Barack Obama continues to impede our jobs with regulations.”

Regular attacks on all new Environmental Protection Agency regulations will be central to the agenda of McConnell and congressional Republicans.

According to The Washington Post, environmental groups, fearing the McConnell agenda, made contributions to Democratic candidates in 2014 totaling $85 million to try to save the Senate from a GOP majority. They lost. But the environmentalists remain a key constituency for Democrats.

McConnell sees an opportunity to make the Democrats seem like effete elitists, thwarting people in need of jobs by prioritizing environmental concerns. Since the 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s political rise, the Democrats have struggled to win white working-class voters. The “Reagan Democrats” abandoned unions and the Democrats until a Southern Democrat, Bill Clinton, won them back. Then George W. Bush reclaimed them for the GOP. President Obama has never done well with working-class whites, especially men.

The 2016 election is shaping up as a contest defined by a working class that is discontent with low wages and rising income inequality. Even with the economy doing well, sinking gas prices and unemployment lower than it was before the start of the recession, there is populist anger over income inequality.

That is why McConnell made the XL pipeline vote his first order of business for the new Republican majority in the Senate. When McConnell tries to pass tax reform intended to lower tax rates on big business he will similarly and cynically present it to working-class voters as an effort to create jobs.

Reid recently described the Republican passion for the pipeline bill as “one of the biggest farces,” in his time in Washington. Top White House officials predict there will be little political damage from a presidential veto because the pipeline is not a priority for voters.

But if enough Senate Democrats continue to work with Republicans, McConnell plans on a narrative ahead of the ’16 election featuring Obama and loyal Democrats as the real “obstructionists” and the reason Washington is not working.

The only relevant question for the next two years is whether Democrats will maintain the unity to beat McConnell’s game.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.