WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), under siege from conservatives over his opt-out proposal for the debt ceiling debate, defended the idea in crassly political terms during an interview on Wednesday morning.
The Kentucky Republican, appearing on Laura Ingraham's program, repeatedly pointed to the political toll that congressional Republicans endured during the mid-'90s when they squared off against then-President Bill Clinton over government spending.
"[W]e knew shutting down the government in 1995 was not going to work for us. It helped Bill Clinton get reelected. I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy," McConnell said. "It didn't work in 1995. What will happen is the administration will send out notices to 80 million Social Security recipients and to military families and they will all start attacking members of Congress. That is not a useful place to take us. And the president will have the bully pulpit to blame Republicans for all this disruption."
"If we go into default he will say Republicans are making the economy worse," he concluded. "And all of a sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy. That is a very bad position going into an election. My first choice was to do something important for the country. But my second obligation is to my party and my conference to prevent them from being sucked into a horrible position politically that would allow the president, probably, to get reelected because we didn't handle this difficult situation correctly."
McConnell's penchant for speaking in the sheerest of political terms is something of a defining character trait. During one of the first interviews he gave after the 2010 elections he called the defeat of Obama's reelection campaign a top party priority.
More than just being blunt, this tendency has also put the brakes to the legislative process. In the immediate aftermath of his proposal to essentially give President Obama the authority to raise the debt ceiling while only demanding that he suggest (not pass) commensurate spending cuts, McConnell was greeted with skepticism. The most common retort -- from Democratic lawmakers and operatives alike -- was to consider the idea a "trap" to undermine the president.
There is some irony to McConnell evoking the legacy of the government shutdown debates of the mid-1990s in defense of his proposal. Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) famously lost the battle of public opinion against President Clinton during that showdown. Now a presidential candidate, Gingrich was one of the first to criticize McConnell for blinking during the debt ceiling debate.