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McConnell’s Fighting Words

In a harsh assessment of President Barack Obama’s first year in office, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the administration’s “hard left— agenda has reshaped the political landscape in favor of Republicans while crippling Democrats’ chances of enacting meaningful legislation.

Democrats “fundamentally misread the mandate of 2008. I don’t think it had anything whatsoever to do with turning America into a Western European country. It was more, kind of fatigue with the previous administration,— McConnell argued during an interview this week in his Capitol office.

McConnell argued that as a result, a “sea change in the political environment— has occurred over the last year that has favored Republicans while causing increasing divisions within Democratic ranks.

“One thing I think is pretty safe to say is that there has been a sea change in the political environment and the confidence, if you will, of the majority that they are in sync with the American people,— McConnell said. “If you look at the political landscape from, say, November of ’08 and compare it to today, we were down 12 in the party generic ballot, and two weeks ago in Gallup we were up four.—

That shift has implications for the president’s agenda on Capitol Hill, McConnell argued, noting that electoral pressures and public interest in issues such as the health care reform bill are driving that change.

“That has an impact on what happens up here, because we don’t exist in splendid isolation here. We are constantly interacting with our constituents, looking at the published polls about how people feel about how we’re doing. … That explains in my view the difficulty they’re having passing the health care bill. The anxiety is on their side, and the energy and the passion is on our side.—

McConnell argued that Democrats and the White House have, at least on the domestic policy front, pursued an explicitly partisan approach. “The domestic strategy was, unify the Democrats, try to pick off a few Republicans, give it a patina of bipartisanship and jam them. … I think the bipartisan stuff with them is just talk,— McConnell said.

He also took issue with the numerous public shows of bipartisanship by the White House, including this week’s jobs summit, arguing that outreach is not the same as a commitment to working together.

“There’s been plenty of reaching out. The president’s a nice guy, people are friendly and all that. But it’s about policy, not personality. I think the core mistake they made, if they were truly seeking bipartisan consensus, was best reflected by the statement by the chief of staff at the beginning of the year that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And we all knew what that meant, that they were going to go hard left,— McConnell said.

McConnell did praise Obama’s decision to back an escalation in Afghanistan, the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak assessment of the administration.

“I want to compliment the president … on his decision to surge in Afghanistan. I think it took some political courage on his part, even if he’s not said it publicly, he must have admitted that the surge he opposed in Iraq must have worked. He made a decision to support the military leadership and as a result of that enjoys very strong Republican support for that initiative. But that is not how they view the domestic agenda,— McConnell argued.

Democrats’ approach to domestic policy has eased McConnell’s efforts to unify his Conference, the leader said.

“I’m proud of the unity we’ve shown throughout the year, that we’ve been able to hold together and make these policy arguments. … Getting consensus and unity is hard work. I think our leadership team has done a good job of being inclusive and working with people and trying to find consensus. And we’ve been able to do that virtually all of the time,— McConnell said, praising the work of his lieutenants as well as the rank-and-file Members.

“I may be the director of the choir, but the choir deserves a lot of credit,— he said.

With his Conference largely united, McConnell’s leadership team “made a decision … to have a vigorous national debate about these policy options,— McConnell said. He said that effort has helped bring the divisions between the two parties into stark contrast and help sway public opinion.

“People have been intensely engaged in the debate and paying a lot of attention, and as a result of that great national debate and discourse the public has decided, at least with the president, that the Republicans are right. At least a majority of them have decided that,— McConnell said. That debate has also given “people the opportunity to understand that there was thoughtful, knowledgeable resistance to this domestic agenda,— a fact that McConnell said could bode well for GOP electoral hopes next year.

“Who’s to say what the atmosphere will be like in November 2010? But I can tell you that if the election were today, we’d have a pretty good election. And we have some evidence of that. We saw it in Virginia and we saw it in New Jersey,— McConnell said, adding that Republicans surveyed voters following those gubernatorial elections asking why they voted for Republicans.

“A very significant number of people did not view those as local races. They were expressing a view about what was going on here in Washington,— McConnell explained. “They used it as a chance to send a message.—

“We go into the new year, from a party point of view, unified, enthusiastic and optimistic,— McConnell said.

McConnell declined to predict how many seats his party might pick up in next year’s election, but he did point out that Republicans are having recruiting successes in traditionally blue states such as California, Illinois and Delaware.

“There are ways of measuring what’s going on out there. Candidate recruitment is off the charts. We’re being competitive in places that we haven’t been in a long time. We’ve got candidates coming out of the woodwork. Believe me, that wasn’t a problem in ’06 and ’08,— McConnell said.

As a result, Republicans appear ready to field candidates “who are electable in a broad variety of places across the country, from California, for example, where we haven’t been competitive in a Senate race in 20 years, to Delaware. How blue is that? To Illinois. How blue is that?—

“I think we’re going to be very competitive in a lot of blue states that we haven’t been competitive in in a long time. And I think that demonstrates genuine alarm on what this administration appears to be trying to do to this country. People are alarmed,— he added.

McConnell also dismissed the divisions within his own party highlighted by the recent “tea party— movement and efforts by some conservatives to force litmus tests on Republican candidates.

“I just don’t view it as a problem. I think that we can stipulate that a Republican from the Northeast is a little, maybe a lot different from a Republican from the Southeast or the West,— McConnell said.

He added that the energy of the conservative movement is ultimately a good thing for the party.

“The worst thing you can have is no energy at all. … Man, there is no apathy out there. People are energized,— McConnell said.

McConnell also noted that while there has been an increased focus on GOP infighting, Democrats face their own internal problems. “For every unhappy, very conservative Republican I find, you find a bunch of unhappy, very liberal Democrats marching around with signs against the president. … I don’t think it’s unique to us,— he said.

Despite having only 40 votes in the Senate and starting the year under a cloud from 2008 electoral defeats, McConnell argued 2009 will end on a positive note for the GOP.

“I would say here at the end of the year … you’ve got unified Republicans, and they’re worried about losing Democrats,— he said.

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