McConnell’s failure to navigate any action on Obamacare through the Senate despite having a two vote Republican majority highlights his limitations as the Republican leader. To set them in perspective, it is useful to compare the performance of former Majority Leader Trent Lott in passing welfare reform, the minimum wage increase, and the balanced federal budget through the Senate despite having only a 53-47 margin of control, just one more Republican than McConnell has to work with.
Why was Lott so successful and McConnell such a failure?
Beyond any differences in their personal style, the reason lies in how they came to power. To get loyalty from the rebels within your own party, you have to have been one of them. Lott and Gingrich were integral parts of the revolutions that brought their party to power. McConnell was a by-stander who welcomed them at the door when they entered the Senate. He was never one of them.
So when times got tough and margins thin, McConnell could not draw on a loyalty born of time in the trenches together in a way that Lott or Gingrich (or lately Paul Ryan) could.
Even before he came to the Senate, Lott had worked closely with Newt Gingrich in reshaping the House of Representatives and freeing it from the dead hand of Senator Bob Michel (R-IL) who had led the party to fifteen years of defeat as leader. McConnell, on the other hand, had served as minority leader for eight years before his party won a Senate Majority and watched the revolution from afar.
Lott ratified his outsider status by winning first the post of Majority Senate Whip and then Leader in battles with long serving institutional members — Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Thad Cochran (R-MS). McConnell rose through seniority, while waiting his turn as Chairman of the Rules Committee, Minority Leader, and then Majority Leader. His assent up the seniority ladder left him little in common with the newly victorious rebels who constitute the new Senate majority.
Lott always identified with an insurgent wing of his party, activists who were fed up with the go-along, get-along leadership of the past. Seizing the position of Minority Whip after only one Senate term, he defeated the incumbent Whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a long time leader of the party. He took control as Majority leader after Bob Dole resigned to run for president, defeating his fellow Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran who called himself an “institutionalist.”
As one of the rebels in the Republican Senate who wanted a more aggressive style of leadership, Lott was close to the newer and more independent Senators. McConnell, on the other hand, is a stranger to them and couldn’t count on their support when the chips were down. Instead, he was buoyed by the backing of the institutional members of his majority who had served long in office.
Once in power, Lott cultivated deep personal relationships with potential rebels — notably including Susan Collins of Maine who was the only member to oppose both McConnell’s replacement bill and repeal of Obamacare itself. Lott could appeal to Collins on a personal level and, as often as not, win her support.
With institutional party loyalty on the ebb, leadership is best given to those who shared the battlefield as allies with the newly elected arrivals and can speak their language and understand their electorates.
McConnell can’t do that.
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