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When the 'One-Term President' Strategy Fails

11/13/2012 11:12 am ET | Updated Jan 13, 2013

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an astoundingly telling moment halfway through President Obama's first term, told a reporter what had been the guiding strategy of Republicans in Congress. "The single most important thing we want to achieve," McConnell said, "is for President Obama to be a one-term president." They figured that if they refused to cooperate on anything, they could later tell voters that the president hadn't accomplished anything and that he had failed to reach across the aisle. McConnell and his caucus dove into that project hook, line and sinker, threatening to destroy the nation's economy by not raising the debt limit, blocking jobs legislation, eschewing compromise on the Bush tax cuts, refusing to staff the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the National Labor Relations Board, and blocking even uncontroversial federal judicial nominees.

The "one-term president" strategy created plenty of gridlock, set back the country's economic recovery and resulted in a historic vacancy crisis in the federal courts. The one thing it did not achieve was a one-term presidency.

Now, as McConnell and his House counterpart, Speaker John Boehner, get back to work after President Obama's reelection I hope they realize that the strategy of scorched-earth obstruction causes far more real harm than political good. But the signs aren't looking so good. Just hours after the presidential election was called for President Obama, Boehner was vowing that he would never compromise on tax cuts for the wealthy, even to avert an explosion of the deficit. McConnell chimed in, denying that the president -- who won a greater margin in the electoral and popular vote than George W. Bush did in 2000 or 2004 -- has any sort of mandate from the majority that elected him. If McConnell and Boehner go forward with their obstruction-at-all-costs plan, President Obama, Congressional Democrats and progressives across the country will have to make sure it's not worth their while.

Part of what makes the obstruction strategy so appealing to Republican leaders, along with its supposed ability to kneecap opponents, is that it fits perfectly with the right's ideas about the role of government. If you think that government is always the problem, why not throw a wrench in the gears of government to prove the point?

This was apparent in Senate Republicans' refusal to confirm the decidedly qualified and moderate Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau simply because they didn't think the Bureau should exist. It was apparent when they repeatedly held disaster relief hostage, insisting on haggling over budget cuts before doing the urgent work of helping people. It was apparent when they decided to wreck the country's credit rating rather than pass a routine debt ceiling increase. It was apparent when they systematically stalled even Republican-selected judicial nominees, making them wait three to four times longer than nominees under George W. Bush. When the party of no-government is in power, it will do what it can to prevent government from being effective, thus "proving" the ineffectualness of government.

The American people spoke loudly and clearly one week ago. Not only was the president handily reelected, Republicans "from all corners of our GOP" lost seats, as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn put it. If the "one-term" strategy becomes a "two-term" strategy, progressives must expose these shenanigans for what they are and fight back. We can start by insisting that they immediately confirm the 19 judicial nominees still awaiting Senate votes after being needlessly stalled for months, and then work with the president and the Senate leadership to eliminate the remaining vacancies on the federal bench. We can make sure the public sees the real costs of the GOP's refusal to raise new revenue to close the deficit or to work with the president on real solutions to our economic problems.

The night of the election, McConnell was ready with a statement denying that President Obama has a mandate for his economic plans, insisting that the president "move to the center" and promising that Republicans in Congress would "meet him halfway." But McConnell has proven that for him, there is no halfway -- only far right and farther. He conveniently ignores the fact that under his leadership, public approval of Congress has reached record lows. And that a president promoting the values of a progressive government with the power to do good has been decisively reelected. It's up to the non-Tea Party majority to make clear to Congress what that mandate really is.