Mellman: McConnell’s strategy: Hurt the country to help the GOP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) returns to his office after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.
Greg Nash

I’ve said it with regard to Supreme Court confirmations and voting rights legislation, but I have to say it again: “Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has proved particularly adept at inventing constitutional principles and American history from whole cloth.”

So it is again, with raising the debt ceiling. 

McConnell claims that because Democrats are the governing party, they bear sole responsibility for raising the debt limit, falsely suggesting this too is a norm in American political history.

Once more the GOP leader is inventing a history at odds with the facts. 

Of course, debt ceiling increases have been controversial in the past, with both parties playing games that led to several near crises. 

But until McConnell took over as leader, when push came to shove, responsible adults in both parties came forward to do what even McConnell now acknowledges must be done, for the good of all. 

Since 1917, when the debt ceiling first crept into law as a byproduct of World War I spending increases, it’s been raised or suspended nearly 100 times. Eighteen of those were under President Reagan, nine under George H. W. Bush, seven under his son, and four under Trump, along with numerous hikes under Democratic presidents.  

Professors Frances Lee and Timothy Cordova found that between 1953 and 2014 (shortly after McConnell acceded to leadership), in cases like this, where the minority party in Congress did not control the White House, nearly 15 percent of the House minority and more than 30 percent of the Senate minority voted for raising the debt ceiling. The numbers were similar for Democrats and Republicans in the same circumstances. 

In recent years though, we’ve seen occasions when every Republican in the House and nearly every GOP senator has refused to support debt ceiling increases under Democratic presidents. McConnell is guaranteeing there will be zero Republican votes for the responsible course this time.

He tries to evade blame by suggesting the debt ceiling is about debt yet to be incurred by President Biden’s programs. It’s not. 

Some 97 percent of U.S. debt was incurred before President Biden became president, and 89 percent of the increase in the debt since the ceiling was last raised, came under Trump.

McConnell and his fellow Republicans championed and voted for the policies that require this increase in the debt ceiling.  

Default, triggered by failure to raise the debt ceiling, would be disastrous for the country, but McConnell’s priority is party not country. He operates from a simple, but importantly valid, insight: if things go badly in the country, it hurts the party that controls the White House. 

Whether it’s an economy gone sour, a war gone wrong, or even shark attacks gone wild, scores of studies show bad outcomes in the real-world lead to fewer seats for the White House party and more for the opposition. 

In other words, McConnell’s strategy is politically smart, albeit morally repugnant.

Destroying the full faith and credit of the United States is horrific policy, but good partisan politics. That he’s doing what’s best for his party, and by his own admission, worst for the county, reveals his true motivation.

Other GOPers may be less Machiavellian, but that would also mean they are less perceptive, failing to understand either the policy or the politics. That’s ignorance not patriotism.

If McConnell’s strategy succeeds, resulting in Republican wins in 2022, GOPers will share leadership of a much diminished nation. 

Republicans who force the country into default, will have done more damage to the United States than any group of elected officials since those who seceded to form the Confederate States of America. 

Great nations pay their bills.  And those entitled to be called “leaders” put country over party.  

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.  

Tags country over party Joe Biden Mitch McConnell National debt of the United States Republican United States debt-ceiling crisis

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