WASHINGTON – Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, has an exceedingly high opinion of his own power.
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday morning outlining his priorities for the new Congress, the Kentucky Republican suggested that the GOP takeover of Congress – not yet 24 hours old – had already boosted the American economy.
“After so many years of sluggish growth, we’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope,” McConnell said in his clenched monotone. “The uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”
He was referring, obviously, to news that the U.S. economy grew at a 5 percent rate in the third quarter, the fastest in more than a decade, furthering record highs in stocks. By McConnell’s logic, Americans began to spend freely in July, August and September because they had a hunch Republicans would win the Senate in November and take control in January.
Elsewhere in his speech, McConnell hailed the contributions of senators from Henry Clay to Robert Byrd, but his self-aggrandizing claim about the economy brought to mind Byrd’s withering criticism of Republicans as pygmies who “stride like colossuses while marveling like Aesop’s fly, sitting on the axle of a chariot, ‘My, what a dust I do raise.’”
McConnell, when he wasn’t taking credit for things that preceded his ascent, gave a remarkably angry and ungracious first speech to the body he now leads. It was an 18-minute snarl, dripping with contempt and packed with campaign-style barbs for the president.
If this opening speech was a sign of McConnell’s leadership, it’s going to be a long and unproductive session. Such addresses are times to summon togetherness and high purpose. House Speaker John Boehner hit the themes just right in his version on Tuesday, when he called for civility in the battle of ideas. “All I ask, and frankly expect, is that we disagree without being disagreeable,” he said, offering a stirring call to achievement: “Let’s make this a time of harvest, and may the fruits of our labors be ladders our children can use to climb the stairs to the stars.”
But McConnell took the Senate on the low road. He stood still at his desk, lips pursed, clearing his throat often, and reading a grim message. “Moment of great anxiety … lost faith in their government … no longer trust Washington … losing health plans after being told otherwise … rising medical costs … difficult just to get by … world filled with chaos … autocrats scoffing at a superpower that doesn’t seem to have a real plan.”
“Confidence in the American dream has plunged,” McConnell said, pointing an index finger downward. “Anxiety about the type of country we leave to the next generation is widespread.” He declared the government “uninterested or incapable” of addressing Americans’ concerns and “working for itself instead of them.” Wiping his nose with a handkerchief, he went on to decry a bureaucracy that tries “to muzzle political opponents and ignore the needs of veterans.”
There’s nothing like a fresh start to bring out that patriotic spirit. And Democrats responded in kind: Minority Leader Harry Reid, injured in an exercise accident, had his lieutenant, Sen. Dick Durbin, read out a statement after McConnell’s speech, saying Democrats wouldn’t repeat Republicans’ “gratuitous obstruction and wanton filibustering.”
Tucked in McConnell’s diatribe were seeds of a magnanimous speech that never took root. He spoke of great legislators of the past and, in his finale, called on colleagues to “look for areas of agreement when we can.” He pledged to return “regular order” to the Senate and the spending process, an admirable goal.
But he spent more of his time scolding, and looking backward at the “countless common-sense bipartisan bills” that “died right here” during the Democrats’ control of the Senate. He chided President Obama’s “anything but productive” threat to veto the Keystone XL oil pipeline. “Bipartisan compromise may not come easily for the president – not his first inclination,” the majority leader said. “The president’s supporters are pressing for militancy these days … the comforts of purity over the duties of progress.” He said Obama and the Democrats should turn from their “exhausted 20th-century mind-set” and do what Republicans want. “It’s not our job to protect the president from good ideas,” he said.
No, it’s apparently McConnell’s job to chide and to taunt – and to make the next two years as bitter and unproductive as the last four.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.