Who would’ve thought that a GOP controlled congress would engender negative talking points from GOP presidential hopefuls? This harsh rhetoric – by some Washington outsiders and some Washington insiders – piggybacks on Trump’s successful tactic of playing up general concerns related to stalled governance, partisanship, and unfavorability with America’s national government.
“If you’re looking for someone to go to Washington, to go along to get along, to get — to agree with the career politicians in both parties who get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests, then I ain’t your guy,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz stated at the first Republican presidential debate earlier this month when responding to a question pertaining to his divisiveness and calling the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar. “There is a reason that we have $18 trillion in debt. Because as conservatives, as Republicans, we keep winning elections. We got a Republican House, we’ve got a Republican Senate, and we don’t have leaders who honor their commitments. I will always tell the truth and do what I said I would do.”
“They told us during the last election that if we just elected a Republican Senate, the leadership out there would put a bill to repeal Obamacare on the desk of the president,” presidential candidate and Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker said in Iowa recently. “[W]e're still waiting for that measure.” As National Journal indicated, Walker’s talking points might point to his frustration with poll numbers that have seen candidates that have never held political office before surging in the polls. “I think it's a protest…I think what's happened is people have so had it with Washington they're sending a message and they're picking, at least right now in the polls, they're picking people who've never held office before to send that kind of message.”
The gridlock and frustration associated with Washington is an easy target, but problems associated with the Senate are not necessarily entirely accurate. As alluded to previously, the modern institutional make-up of the Senate has ceded a great deal of authority to the minority party as in the way the filibuster is used. Under current procedure, most legislative measures require a 60 vote threshold to pass rather than a simple 51 vote majority. While many Democrats decried the disastrous situation that would occur in the Senate if Republicans won a majority in last November’s mid-term elections, not much has truly changed (except the ability to continue to block nominations following then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s [D-NV] reform to allow for simple majorities in approving presidential nominees) as measures still require a super-majority which Republicans do not enjoy.
When Republicans were in the minority, they were able to block key measures pushed by the president and Democrats such as a background check proposal for firearms, while the situation is now flipped – as seen at the beginning of the new Congress with the failed passage of a measure associated with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which received over 50 votes.
All this is not to say that Majority Leader McConnell has not had struggles in his short tenure at the helm in the Senate. His strategy in handling the reauthorization of controversial provisions in the Patriot Act severely backfired causing certain powers to sunset before the Senate was able to approve a measure. Additionally, as alluded to by Gov. Walker, McConnell has not introduced measures pertaining to Obamacare.
Despite these inaccuracies in attacks against McConnell and establishment Republicans in Congress bound by institutional rules, they are extremely useful for anti-establishment Tea Party bases for those outside Washington and even insiders such as Ted Cruz that were elected to shake up the status quo as well as outsiders that have never held political office such as former technology executive Carly Fiorina, surgeon Ben Carson, and Trump. This tactic is easy as it capitalizes on the unfavorability of Congress among the American people, which is at 14 percent – a historic low – and solidifies conservative bonafides.
During the primary process, breaking away from the pack is critical. Candidates will try any way they can to separate themselves from others while gaining support from primary voters. However, the political climate in Washington is much different than at the state level, which is currently dominated by Republican controlled legislatures and governors mansions. In many instances, pragmatism is a necessary evil in Washington, much to the dismay of legislators such as Cruz, who led the charge to shut down the government in 2013 over Obamacare. McConnell is known as an establishment Republican who knows how to play the game, but this pragmatism has contributed to furor in an increasingly polarized national political game.